Spork Report: A Welcome Goodbye to Animal Crackers at Breakfast?

by Bettina Elias Siegel on November 3, 2011

[Ed Note:  The following post appears on my Houston ISD school food blog, The Spork Report and is also posted at the Houston Chronicle's Chron.com.]

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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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Rosemary Evergreen November 3, 2011 at 7:25 am

The “breakfasts” that my school district serves are appalling. Trix yogurt, “elf grahams,” and other sugary options. The district nutritionists present a unified force in defense of their choices. It is difficult to determine how to proceed in the face of this system. We personally never buy breakfast, and lunch only rarely, but all the kids who get the sugar for breakfast are in class all morning with mine, and surely there must be behavioral consequences for such poor food.

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Bettina Elias Siegel November 4, 2011 at 5:26 pm

Sounds very similar to our breakfasts, at least when the program first rolled out. The problem in HISD is that it’s a universal, in class program. I’ve been vocal in support of the program because in a district with over 80% of kids on free/reduced lunch, there’s clearly a need. But for many kids, according to my daughter, this is actually their second breakfast of the day. I wonder if their parents even know they’re taking it.

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Kristi November 3, 2011 at 8:18 am

I never thought about it, but that’s probably why a packet of Goldfish are offered every day with lunch at my son’s school. At no extra cost. Last year at the beginning of the year I went through the line with him as he chose his food. He got some meat on a wheat bun, canned veggie, syrupy fruit, milk, OJ, and Goldfish. What did he actually eat? The bun, Goldfish, and the milk. That’s when we stopped buying school lunch and haven’t since. I haven’t even checked what’s served at breakfast…..

Oh, and the Goldfish are not on the menu.

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Bettina Elias Siegel November 4, 2011 at 5:24 pm

Wow. I’ll bet that’s why – crazy.

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Bri November 3, 2011 at 9:30 am

I’m sorry for my irreverence, but I actually giggled at the part where Brian told you that the animal crackers are a good source of “iron and calories.” I’ve never before in my life thought of evaluating foods based on whether or not they’re a good source of CALORIES! And, honestly, I love the quote because that is EXACTLY what animal crackers are. A good source of calories. And not much else. (I’ll let the dietitians and food manufacturers tout their “iron” content.)

On a more serious note, I’m so pleased — and can only imagine that you must be as well — to hear that your district is moving to food-based planning rather than nutrient standard planning. I’m sure there will be pitfalls with this system as well — nothing is perfect — but at least it sounds like you’ll have a shot at getting menus that don’t contain bizarre combinations of foods and add-ons of caloric nonsense that have no place on the trays.

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Bettina Elias Siegel November 4, 2011 at 5:24 pm

Bri – the good news is that nutrient standard is going away across the board in light of the passage of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act (as far as I’m aware.) I’m really hoping this will improve menu planning everywhere. . . .

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Justin November 4, 2011 at 8:57 am

“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.”

This is the part that really hit me the most because it shows the true flaws in the institutional food service industry. Imagine if you shopped for food this way at the grocery store.

“Hi, I’m looking for a product that’s approximately 100 calories and N grams of iron. Can you help me find such an item? Any item will do.”

*groan*

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Bettina Elias Siegel November 4, 2011 at 5:22 pm

EXACTLY. This is why I’m so glad the nutrient standard has basically bitten the dust in light of the new school food legislation. It’s such a ridiculous way of looking at food.

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