My son starts high school next year and we’ve recently spent some time touring local public and private schools to find the best fit for him. So, a few weeks ago, we sat in a darkened auditorium at one of Houston’s most respected public high schools and watched a short video extolling its virtues: top-notch academics, a robust sports program, a diverse array of student clubs – and the fact that kids can purchase fast food lunches three times a week, brought in by the PTA as a fundraiser.
As a parent who’s worked for six years to help improve Houston ISD’s school food environment, and as someone who’s intimately familiar with the federal Smart Snacks rules – rules which expressly prohibit the sale of junk food during school hours – my jaw dropped. And when the principal himself later touted the junk food sales as a big selling point for kids in his remarks, it dropped even further.
I couldn’t believe a school official would so publicly admit, let alone crow about, a practice that’s illegal. I even wondered if the school was selling only a limited array of Smart-Snacks-compliant fast food items (although I couldn’t fathom what those might be), and maybe that’s why he was being so open about it?
But when I later suggested this to someone in Houston ISD Nutrition Services, she just looked at me with pity. No, she said. No one’s whipping out a nutritional calculator to ensure these sales are legal. Instead, this school – and many other middle and high schools in my district – continue to sell junk food with impunity, even after the 2014 implementation of the Smart Snacks rules. Typical items regularly spotted for sale on Houston ISD campuses include Chick-Fil-A, donuts, McDonald’s hamburgers, soda, candy, kolaches, Chinese take-out and more.
So what’s going on here? Why haven’t sweeping new federal rules eradicated school junk food fundraising in my district, as they were intended to do? Here’s my assessment:
Money, Money, Money
Houston ISD faces a stunning $107 million budget shortfall next year and schools are in desperate need of money. But even in prior years, schools and parent groups have felt compelled to fundraise in order to fulfill a wide variety of legitimate student needs, thanks to Texas’s consistently near-last ranking for national per-student spending. And junk food sales are widely viewed as the number one, sure-fire way to raise that money. Even some of the most well-meaning, nutrition-minded parents have told me, in essence, I feel bad about it, but there’s just no other way.
Penalties = The Cost of Doing Business
Illegal junk food sales raise serious money in my district – thousands and thousands of dollars, in some cases. So even before the implementation of Smart Snacks, violations of the now-repealed Texas School Nutrition Policy (TSNP) were rampant. And if a school happened to incur a fine for such violations – a rare event, in any case – many principals felt the penalty was just the cost of doing business. The same fines (loss of daily federal school meal reimbursements) can now be imposed under the new federal scheme, and they seem to be regarded by some Houston principals with the same jaded eye.
You Can Get Fined and STILL Not Pay
There’s a disturbing precedent here in Houston of schools getting away scot-free even after they’ve been caught out and fined.
Back in early 2013, eight Houston high schools were fined a total of $73,000 by the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA), the state agency which oversees our child nutrition programs, for junk food fundraising that violated state policy. And guess what happened? Those principals marched up to Austin to protest the fines and somehow – I’ve never quite figured out how – got them tossed out entirely.
I have it on good authority that one of those principals actually has the reversal order proudly framed on his office wall. Really.
Our State Law (Supposedly) Protects Junk Food Sales
This is Texas. And that means the folks in our state legislature weren’t content to just let those above-mentioned fines be mysteriously reversed back in 2013. Instead, they went so far as to pass a state law (I broke the story first here on TLT) expressly preserving schools’ ability to sell junk food.
The law was so sloppily drafted that it doesn’t quite do what the lawmakers intended, and no one has yet tried to invoke it against the newer federal Smart Snacks rules. But some folks clearly are under the erroneous impression that the state law would prevail in a federal-state stand-off. That sort of confusion only further encourages some schools to sell junk food with impunity.
Our Henhouse is Guarded By the Ultimate Fox
Remember Sid Miller? For a few weeks last year, it seemed like this blog covered nothing else. He’s our state’s Agriculture Commissioner, which means he’s the official who heads up the TDA, the agency charged with curbing illegal school junk food sales. Let’s not forget that his very first act in office was to grant “amnesty” to school cupcakes (even though, this being Texas, we already had a law preserving parents’ right to bring cupcakes to school.) He also decided it was a good idea, in a state with rampant childhood obesity, to lift a decade-old ban on deep fryers in our schools. So he’s hardly the state official to strike fear in the hearts of principals engaging in illegal junk food sales.
A Failure of Leadership at Houston ISD’s Nutrition Services
School meal programs are directly and adversely affected when junk food sales are going on right down the hall from the cafeteria. But my district’s Nutrition Services department has consistently failed to exercise any leadership on this issue. No one in that department seems willing to stand before the school board and say, “Enough is enough! Please act as our partner in policing and condemning this practice.” Instead, our school food department tiptoes around blatantly-law-breaking principals, disapprovingly jotting down their violations, but too fearful to make enemies by standing up for what’s right – and what’s right for the department’s own bottom line.
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So what’s the upshot?
Unless something changes, and I really don’t expect it to, the pizza will keep selling and the soda will keep flowing on many of our campuses. The prom will get funded, the band uniforms will be paid for. Maybe principals will pay a fine for their flagrant disregard of federal law, or maybe they won’t.
Sure, a lot of kids in my district will suffer adverse effects on their longterm health, especially given that over one-third of Texas kids are already overweight or obese. But by the time those health consequences are manifest, by the time they need insulin or amputations, they’ll be long out of Houston ISD. And our principals and parent groups will be too busy selling junk food to a whole new crop of kids to notice.
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