Notes From the Field: Frito Pie and Mashed Potatoes

by Bettina Elias Siegel on September 20, 2010

Last week I chose a random day to visit my children’s cafeteria and here’s what was being served:

To the right is pepperoni pizza, to the left is Frito Pie, and both were served with mashed potatoes, green beans and an apple. (The child on the right had declined the potatoes and had purchased an ice cream a la carte).  For the uninitiated (and that would include me, before moving to Texas), classic Frito Pie consists of Frito corn chips topped with chili, cheese and often other toppings, served straight-up or sometimes baked together.

I believe — based on prior conversations with Houston ISD food services — that (1) the Frito Pie is made from baked, whole grain chips; (2) the chili contains beef and beans (the beans are a new addition); (3) there is some whole grain in the pizza crust (but I don’t know the percentage), and (4) both dishes use low-fat (or maybe reduced-fat) cheese.  [Ed Update:  I later learned the chips are fried.]

I’m glad that those nutritional improvements have been made, and I have no problem with kid-friendly options like pizza and Frito Pie appearing on the menu some of the time. But as I’ve talked about quite a bit on The Lunch Tray (starting with my very first post), it does concern me that our menu is currently still weighted almost entirely in favor of “kid food” (or what one source in Janet Poppendieck’s Free For All calls “carnival fare”).

Based on last week’s menu, in the course of one week a child could have eaten for lunch: beef taco nachos, a chicken fried steak with cream gravy, a breaded chicken sandwich, and Frito Pie (or pepperoni pizza) served with mashed potatoes.   Whether we like it or not, a child is likely to believe that this constitutes an sound daily diet – or why else would his or her school serve it?   And children have no idea that these foods might be somehow “better” than the same offerings at a restaurant.

What takes place in the cafeteria constitutes a lesson — just as much as what takes place in the classroom.  So, what are we teaching our children?

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Stephanie Acosta September 20, 2010 at 3:28 pm

Hey, at least those children had some veggies – at our school my daughters 2nd grade class is one of the last to go through the cafeteria. There were NO veggies… they received, choice of Frito Pie or Pepperoni Pizza with a wedged orange and milk. This only applied to the last 2 or 3 classes, but still. ARGH!!! One would think that with all the waste in the HISD system, that being short food like veggies, would not occur… I was very disappointed. I will be bringing my photos on Thursday!

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bettina elias siegel September 20, 2010 at 7:32 pm

Stephanie: I hear that a lot — that food runs out so that even if you approve of what’s on the menu, it may not necessarily be what your kid is served that day. – Bettina

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Bri September 20, 2010 at 3:48 pm

Just gotta say it…once again, your kids’ lunchroom menu has the weirdest combinations. Clearly there is some sort of potato conspiracy occurring. Mashed potatoes with pizza? Mashed potatoes with Frito Pie? In all honesty, I’d give the Frito Pie a pass if it didn’t come with a big old lump of starch; I’d also give it a pass if it didn’t, as you point out, share menu space with a whole bunch of similarly meat-y, cheesy, starchy, salty, “kid-friendly,” quasi-made-over versions of junk food favorites. These kids could recreate almost their entire week’s worth of school lunches at any mall food court in America. Now that’s a thought that will keep me up at night…

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bettina elias siegel September 20, 2010 at 7:31 pm

Bri: I swear I’m not picking “potato” day either! :-)

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Lisa Suriano September 21, 2010 at 7:23 am

I would bet that the crust is 51% whole grain. This seems to be the magic number out there in the school food industry. All these manufacturers are touting these items at the industry trade shows I attend. It’s annoying. They can do better than that!

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bettina elias siegel September 22, 2010 at 9:49 pm

Lisa – would love to know more about what’s pitched at those shows. Do I smell another guest blog post? :-) – Bettina

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Grace September 21, 2010 at 1:20 pm

I did lunch rooom duty today. Fried chix strips and green beans. There was a salad bar option, but kids didn’t really know how to manage. That might get better in fuure. Glad Bklyn doesnt do frito pie!

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bettina elias siegel September 21, 2010 at 1:23 pm

Grace: Love hearing reports from other schools and cities! Keep ‘em coming. – Bettina

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