Spork Report: Is Houston ISD Ready To Get The Junk Food Out of Its Cafeterias?

As many of you know, I’ve long been concerned about the quality of the so-called “a la carte” items sold by my district, Houston ISD (the nation’s seventh largest) in its cafeterias and snack bar lines.

These foods, offered in direct competition with the federally reimbursable meal and sold only to turn a profit, tend to be far lower in nutritional quality than the main meal (which includes fruits, vegetables and usually milk).  Think bright blue slushies, fried chips in gooey nacho sauce, Frito Pie, pizza slices, fried chicken sandwiches and ice cream.  The presence of a la carte also creates the very real issue of social stigma, such that poor kids don’t want to be seen (or even have their photos taken) in the “uncool” school meal line.

slushie nachos
One kid's Houston ISD-supplied "lunch" of a bright blue/red slushie and fried chips with nacho sauce.

Today on my Houston ISD school food blog, The Spork Report, I describe two potentially encouraging developments which could presage the end of junk food in our cafeterias:  the recent, courageous action of two of our school board trustees in objecting to the sale of these foods, as well as a fantastic Houston Chronicle editorial today in which the paper urges HISD to clean up its act.

After years of feeling stonewalled by my district on this issue, I actually feel like the tide might be turning, people.

Read more on today’s Spork Report, which you can also always find on the Houston Chronicle‘s chron.com.


[While I serve on HISD’s Food Services Parent Advisory Committee and the district’s School Health Advisory Council (SHAC), all views expressed on The Spork Report and here are entirely my own.]

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  1. teri says

    I’m wondering about what will happen to the food service department if the a la carte items are removed. In most cases those items are sold at profit because the departments need the money to buy equipment, food, and other items that the general school budget does not entirely cover. In our district we would not be able to replace old equipment let alone buy the quality food that we would like without the added income from the a la carte sales.
    I would love to see the bad food go, but I’m not sure how they would make up for the loss of revenue.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Teri: You raise a totally legitimate question. A la carte makes money and that money is often needed to keep a lunch program afloat. That’s why When the Houston ISD SHAC presented to the HISD school board on this issue, we were totally up front about potential costs to either discontinuing a la carte altogether or potentially selling only foods that contribute positively to a child’s diet. But districts like San Francisco USD made the decision that they’re not going to profit off kids’ health and instead cover any food services shortfall. That takes commitment and political will – I honestly don’t know if HISD will follow suit or not.

      • Bettina Elias Siegel says

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        • says

          Don’t tell me… you mean somebody tried to make the argument that HISD should be selling LFTB on the a la carte menu?

          (Just kidding… glad to see you have weathered the storm!)


          • Phyllis says

            EdT – based on the fact that hamburger processed with LFTB is more nutritious than any of the junk foods, I say “junk food OUT, hamburger made with 15% LFTB IN!” lol

  2. Stephanie says

    Just poked my head in to say “hi!” and “wow!” and “awesome!” and “you go girl!” and “thanks!” and “<3"

  3. Coolernearlake says

    Instead of eliminating ala carte foods, why not suggest that the school district offer a selection of healthy alternative entrees and snacks? Especially at the high school level, a standard reimbursable lunch may be less food than some students need and it is really quite reasonable to offer them the option to buy additional items. Ala carte items could be offered on the regular lines, eliminating the haves/have nots split.

    Any good school meal program already protects students from “overt identification” of their lunch status. A large district like Houston may also use computer systems that allow parents to monitor any and all purchases on the lunch line by their children.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Coolernearlake: In the abstract, it sounds great to replace junk a la carte with healthy a la carte, and here in HISD we do have the computer system in place so that if there were one line, no one would know who is on free/reduced and who is not.

      But still, it troubles me that under such a system only kids with money in their pocket could get the fresher, healthier a la carte items like salads and yogurts, while the rest of our student population (over 80% on free/reduced) would not be able to access those foods. I would much rather our Food Services make those foods available to all, even if it means running a deficit, and then have my school board cover the shortfall in the interest of student health. Here in HISD our budget is over 1 billion dollars – surely there’s enough money to invest in something so critically important?

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