Spork Report: When Flaming Hot Cheetos + Nacho Cheese = School Lunch

by Bettina Elias Siegel on October 14, 2011

[Ed Note:  This post also appears on The Spork Report, my blog covering school food in Houston ISD.]

In the last year I’ve participated in two or three “Nutrition Strategy” meetings held by HISD Food Services, sessions which convene stakeholders from the district, the parent community, the public health profession, the urban gardening movement and elsewhere to discuss our district’s school food.  One of our first tasks was to draft a new mission statement for HISD Food Services, a statement which now routinely appears on the department’s emails and communications material:

Our Nutrition Mission:  “Houston ISD will be a leader in child nutrition and wellness by providing the highest level of nutrition possible on our campuses, by providing comprehensive nutrition and wellness education, and by engaging the entire HISD community to teach our children the benefits of making healthy choices.”

I do believe HISD is working toward these goals and it was my intention to start this blog off on a positive note by sharing news of some of those good developments.  But last week I received a tweet that gave me serious pause.  It was a photograph of one child’s “lunch” in an HISD middle school cafeteria — bright red, baked Flaming Hot Cheetos (aka “hot fries”) covered with processed nacho cheese sauce.

hot fries and nacho cheeseJust to be clear, this was not a lunch brought by the child from home, nor was it purchased by the child off campus.  This “lunch” consisted of foods offered to our children by the district itself, motivated entirely by profit.

As readers of The Lunch Tray know, I appreciate the financial and logistical obstacles facing any school district operating under the National School Lunch Program, and I believe my expectations for what can be achieved in terms of school food reform are realistic.  I’m not one of those parents who insists that school food must be organic, locally-sourced, grass-fed, fair trade and sustainable.  All of that would be great, to be sure, and I hope we see such food on lunch trays in the future.  But for now my goals are more modest:  just more freshly prepared food, more whole foods, fewer highly processed and chemically-preserved entrees, and a more varied menu, particularly at the middle and high school levels, so we don’t teach our kids it’s OK to eat pizza and burgers five days a week, week in and week out.

And when it comes to the district’s “a la carte” lines, which is where the child above obtained his or her bright orange “lunch,” I’d like HISD to take seriously its mission to offer “the highest level of nutrition possible.”  As San Francisco school food reformer Dana Woldow once put it on The Lunch Tray, products like Reduced Fat Doritos. Baked Flaming Hot Cheetos, and 100 calorie Rice Krispies bars are “better for you” “in the sense that it is ‘better for you’ to be hit on the head with a brick only twice instead of three times.”  Clearly such foods are not offering the “highest level of nutrition” possible, but as long as they’re sold in our lunch rooms, kids like the one above will make an entire meal out of them — to the detriment of their own health and their ability to learn effectively in the classroom.

As the chairperson of the nutrition committee of HISD’s School Health Advisory Council (SHAC), I’m working with a dedicated group of parents and public health professionals to  address the issue of a la carte foods in HISD — both the items sold by the district itself (like the Flaming Hot Cheetos above) and items sold by parent and student groups (usually in violation of state rules) as campus fundraisers.  I’ll keep you abreast of our progress here, and on The Spork Report.
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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Susan October 14, 2011 at 9:24 am

I…..I….. have no words. That’s is food? On what planet?

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Susan October 14, 2011 at 9:26 am

Sorry. I was so shaken that I made a typo.

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Bettina Elias Siegel October 14, 2011 at 2:06 pm

I totally understand!

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Ed Bruske October 14, 2011 at 9:25 am

This is what you get, first of all, when you hire a giant food service management company like Aramark to provide your school meals, as Houston does. Does your school district have a “cost reimbursable” contract with Aramark, or a “fixed rate” contract? In either case, Aramark is receiving hefty rebates from the manufacturers of both the Cheetos and the cheese sauce in that picture, rebates they don’t get purchasing, say, meat or produce off the government commodity list, or produce from your local farms. These would be some of the structural issues Houstonians need to examine to explain why this kind of junk is being served in your schools. Obviously, nobody is driving the bus.

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Bettina Elias Siegel October 14, 2011 at 2:06 pm

We’re trying to get a hold of the steering wheel, Ed. Have no fear. :-)

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Ed Bruske October 15, 2011 at 7:51 am

Bettina, do you know whether Houston has a “cost reimbursable” or “flat rate” contract with Aramark? It makes a huge difference. With a “cost reimbursable” contract, Aramark is required to credit the school district for all the rebates and discounts it receives. That doesn’t mean it has no incentive to seek out rebates. They are one of the most profitable aspects of school food service. But it would at least give your food service leaders a chance to control the food choices Aramark is making, since the school district would be paying for all of the meal components by invoice, in addition to whatever management fees and per meal fees it has agreed to pay Aramark. District of Columbia schools have this kind of contract with Chartwells and they’ve overcome lots of resistance from Chartwells to make incredible improvements to the menu.

Under a “flat rate” contract, the rebates and discounts are never revealed. Aramark keeps them, and charges a flat rate for each meal it serves. This may appear to be a cheaper method of dealing with a food service provider, but in fact the school district would have much less control over the individual meal items Aramark is serving. What’s more, rebates tend to drive up the up front costs of ingredients, so that while Aramark is profiting enormously on the back end, kids are getting cheated out of better food they could have on their trays if rebates weren’t involved. Chicago, for instance, has this kind of contract with Chartwells.

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Bettina Elias Siegel October 15, 2011 at 8:25 am

Ed – It is a flat rate contract. I inquired a long time ago (when I first read your great coverage of this issue) about rebates here in HISD and have been told by several sources that in HISD, unlike most Aramark districts, the district itself does all of its own purchasing. There are no purchases made by Aramark. However, I realize that might not be the end of the discussion and I would like to discuss this issue with your further, offline. I’ll email you.

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Kristi October 14, 2011 at 11:23 am

This brought back memories of my lunch during high school. I used to eat Funyuns with cheese sauce and a glass of sweet tea EVERY day. (But I guess you weren’t going for nostalgia here! LOL)

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Bettina Elias Siegel October 14, 2011 at 2:06 pm

Kristi: OH NO. So, I’m curious. Did you evolve into a more healthful eater? If so, when and how did it happen? Or are you eating Funyuns with cheese sauce to this very day? :-)

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Kristi October 14, 2011 at 3:19 pm

Oh, goodness, no! I went from SAD to Feingold, WAPF to now mostly primal. We buy as much grass fed meats as possible, cook with coconut oil and coconut flour, buy most food from the farmer’s market, and drink local raw milk that I drive to a dairy to get. LOL We’ve come a long way! My journey began with me googling alternatives to ADHD drugs for my son when he was in Kindergarten. I found about Feingold diet helping kids and learned all about food dyes and additives and Monsanto and CAFOs and was blown away. The more I’ve read and learned, the more our diet has evolved. We’re mostly primal because my son does better without wheat and I didn’t like soaking grains anyway. :) It’s much easier this way. And each food might cost more, but we’re saving by not buying junk or eating out.
Ya gotta love Dr. Google. And blogger moms!

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Bettina Elias Siegel October 15, 2011 at 8:22 am

What a journey – from Funyons to a primal diet. You should write a book, Kristi! :-)

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_Susan_ October 14, 2011 at 11:30 am

That school should be ashamed of itself! I don’t think that offering (I refuse to call it food) would make the menu at Ontario schools. http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/extra/eng/ppm/Appendix150.pdf

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Bettina Elias Siegel October 14, 2011 at 1:59 pm

Just to be clear – and not in any way condoning the sale of this junk – the school district doesn’t offer this concoction on the menu. A kid bought the items from the a la carte line and mixed it up him/herself. But of course, why are these junk items even offered?

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Karen October 14, 2011 at 11:51 am

Hey, you’re chairing the panel now! Congrats on the leadership opportunity. I hope that you succeed in making significant changes this year.

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Midge Elias October 15, 2011 at 5:05 am

This is a call to action. Kudos to you for calling attention to this appaling situation.

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Hunter September 22, 2013 at 3:54 pm

Okay, I’m a kid, I think this would be pretty good but if they’re not serving it everyday why does it matter once every month or once every year never hurt anyone.

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