When I was once asked by Slow Food USA to explain why I started my daily blog about kids and food, The Lunch Tray, I realized that a packet of animal crackers played no small part in the decision.
I was attending my very first HISD Food Services Parent Advisory Committee meeting in February 2010, just as the First Class Breakfast program was being fully rolled out across the district at the direction of Superintendent Terry Grier. There was a lot of concern among parents at the meeting (and throughout HISD) about some of the items on that initial breakfast menu, including brightly hued Trix yogurt, shrink-wrapped, processed maple-flavored waffles, and packets of animal crackers.
When I asked HISD’s then-head dietician about the animal crackers specifically, she said they were added to the menu to meet the USDA’s iron requirements for school breakfasts (via the fortification of the flour) as well as its high calorie requirements (via the sugar). I was so appalled by a system (called the “nutrient standard” method of meal planning) that would lead to this bizarre result that I began to learn as much as I could about the federal school meal program. Eventually I wanted to share that knowledge via a blog and The Lunch Tray was born.
When I revisited the animal cracker issue on The Lunch Tray back in August, 2010, I was told by the district, to my relief, that they were going to be phased out of HISD’s breakfast program in the fall of last year. (And, indeed, if you look at the current published HISD breakfast menus — here, here and here— animal crackers are nowhere to be found.)
But a few days ago my daughter happened to mention seeing them every day at breakfast in her middle school and she brought home a packet to show me. Concerned, I contacted Brian Giles, Senior Administrator of Food Services, to find out what was going on. He wrote:
Our commitment was to eliminate the fortified crackers from the elementary breakfast menu. That has definitely happened. The item is approved for a la carte during the lunch period. . . .
Due to higher calorie and iron requirements for middle school age groups, the item is still offered as part of the breakfast menu at that level.
Regarding the calorie/iron conundrum, here are some solutions we have been working on:
1) We will be moving from “nutrient standard” menu planning to “food based” menu planning next year. This menu planning approach has lower, more realistic calorie standards. It will also allow us to increase the variety of food groups offered on a given menu. Because of lower calorie requirements, we could eliminate the menu need for items like the animal crackers (which are a good source of iron and calories).
2) In our current “Select Items” bid, we are seeking additional breakfast items that are high in iron and meet calorie requirements. Bid responses will be tabulated in December and we could see these new items on menus as early as February, replacing the need for a cracker item.
When I asked Brian why animal crackers were being served without appearing on the middle school menu, he wrote:
I checked the online menus and it looks like we have a typo that says “cereal assortment” every day. We will change the online menu so it is accurate.
When I pressed him to find out how long the typo had been appearing, he added:
As far as we can tell, the typo stretches back to last spring’s online menus. Certainly no intention to mislead the public. It was simply a data entry error in the process between menu creation and menu publication that we didn’t catch. Thanks a lot for bringing it to my attention.
I take Brian at his word, of course, and mistakes can happen to anyone. But it disturbs me that any food item (and particularly one that had been the subject of some controversy) was being served to students for so long without the knowledge of HISD parents.
At any rate, I personally will be very pleased when our schools are no longer offering what are, in the end, cookies, to HISD middle schoolers every morning. Nutrition aside (these particular animal crackers do contain some whole grain), this seems like a terrible message to be sending our students about sound food choices, particularly in an age of rampant childhood obesity.
I’ll keep you posted here.
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