Spork Report: Yes, More About Those Cheetos in HISD (And the News May Not Be Good)

by Bettina Elias Siegel on November 9, 2011

[Ed. Note:  This post appears on today's The Spork Report, my new HISD school food blog, as well as the Houston Chronicle's Chron.com]

My first post on this blog contained a disturbing photo of one child’s meal in HISD: baked Flaming Hot Cheetos covered with nacho sauce, items the student purchased separately in his/her middle school cafeteria’s “a la carte” line and mixed together for his/her lunch:

hot fries and nacho cheese

I chose to lead off with this topic because I’ve long been concerned about the nutritional quality of the foods HISD offers to students for profit, in competition with the federally subsidized school meal, on the district’s a la carte lines.

Shortly after that post was published, an alarmed school board trustee contacted Brian Giles, Senior Administrator of Food Services, to express concern and obtain more information about the foods in the photograph.  In his response (to which I was later given access), Giles reassured the school board trustee:

The picture features “queso” sauce made at the Food Service Support Facility and some baked snacks.  These items, as well as all items approved for “a la carte” sale at schools, individually meet standards for Calories, Fat, Sugar, and Sodium as defined by the HealthierUS School Challenge.  These voluntary nutrition standards exceed current standards mandated by USDA for all school districts.

Based on this representation, I told Spork Report readers the same thing in my follow up report about a la carte, i.e., that all of HISD’s a la carte foods — including these two particular items (which I had made clear in my original post were purchased in a middle school) — comply with the HealthierUS Schools Challenge (“HUSSC”) standards.

Some time later, though, I remembered that there are gold, silver and bronze standards under the HUSSC and I wondered which standard our district is meeting.   But when I asked a representative of Food Services about this, now I was told:

Our elementary a la carte offerings meet the HealthierUS Schools Challenge Gold Standard.  For now, at the middle and high school level, we are working with schools on an individual basis who want to make changes.

This response directly contradicted what the school board member had been told by Giles and what I had subsequently told Spork Report readers – i.e., that HISD is meeting healthier a la carte standards across the board, regardless of grade level.

Taken aback by this development, I decided to do some investigating on my own.  I obtained from Frito-Lay’s website the nutritional information for the baked Flaming Hot Cheetos in the photo

and I then plugged that data into the HUSSC a la carte foods calculator.  To my surprise, the baked Cheetos were rejected by the calculator for containing an excessive amount of fat:

What’s particularly disturbing here is that these baked Cheetos (at least according to my own elementary-aged child) are also sold at the elementary school level.  So even where HISD is supposed to be meeting the HUSSC gold standard, the district is not in fact doing so, at least with respect to this particular product.

I raised all of the foregoing concerns with Brian Giles and he promised to have his nutrition team “re-analyze all our a la carte offerings as compared to HealthierUS School Challenge” and get back to me shortly.  I’ll share what I learn here.

Why is any of this important?   Because until we see what forthcoming national nutritional standards for a la carte foods look like, or until HISD SHAC-based efforts to improve a la carte standards in our district reach fruition, there clearly are children like the one in the photo who are making an entire meal out of these foods.  In a district which strives to offer “the highest level of nutrition possible on our campuses,” meeting the HUSSC standards for every a la carte item it sells — across the board and at every grade level — would be a big step in the right direction.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

anthony November 9, 2011 at 8:27 am

remember the article i forwarded to you from the mercola webiste about the chemical acrylamide being present in carbohydrate foods cooked at high temperatures (which these undoubtedly are). so, in addition to the question of basic nutritional content, there is also a significant question regarding whether offering this product and products like it on school campuses amounts to the affirmative poisoning of children.

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Bettina Elias Siegel November 9, 2011 at 9:17 am

Oh, Anthony – that whole acrylamide issue makes my head spin. It’s not that I reject the concept but it means that a lot of cooked foods we eat (not just “bad for you” foods like fries) may be cancer-causing. I just haven’t been able to take that one on yet [insert visual: ostrich with head in sand]. For interested readers, the article to which Anthony is referring is here.

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anthony November 9, 2011 at 9:40 am

i understand.

it is interesting to think, though, that when kids ask to have the crust cut off the bread in their sandwiches, it may be that their not-yet-toxic systems are sensitive to something they know they don’t want.

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Bettina Elias Siegel November 9, 2011 at 9:55 am

What a fascinating thought.

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anthony November 9, 2011 at 11:24 am

these are the sorts of nuances my medicine recognizes….

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Dina Rose November 9, 2011 at 8:30 am

But even if Cheetos squeak by on some low-bar nutrition standard, do we really want our kids eating Cheetos and Queso for lunch? Come on!

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Bettina Elias Siegel November 9, 2011 at 9:12 am

Agreed, Dina, and our SHAC is working this year toward either a much stricter standard for a la carte than the HUSSC standards OR eliminating it altogether. My concern here is that we’re not even meeting the relatively low bar that the district said we were.

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Dr. Susan Rubin November 9, 2011 at 8:57 am

Sorry I never got around to explaining this one. The Healthier US challenge, the Alliance for a Healthier Generation were all infiltrated years ago by big food and big soda.

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Bettina Elias Siegel November 9, 2011 at 9:24 am

Yet we’re not even meeting THAT standard, apparently, despite representations to the contrary! That’s my real point here, Susan. The goal is to do better than the HUSSC, for sure.

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Kate November 9, 2011 at 12:48 pm

I’d have to go along with Bettina’s comments about acrylamides…they’d be present in many baked/fried foods, not just the junk foods presented in the Mercola story.

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Mary Lawton November 9, 2011 at 1:40 pm

I want to make a suggestion about parental pro-activeness regarding crappy food on HISD campuses. Get a group of parents together, even two, go to your principal and talk about getting rid of the slushies, or hot cheetos being sold at your high school store, or other unhealthy foods on your campus. Bring examples of what other schools are doing to create a healthier campus. Volunteer as the Wellness Coordinator on your PTO and keep an eye on what is happening, junk food-wise, on your child’s campus. Talk about this to your fellow PTO board members. Many school PTO’s are making a lot of money selling hot cheetos and sodas and candy. Is that a good thing for our kids? Isn’t it about time parents started changing the way they raise funds?
The only way to get the hot cheetos off our campuses is to get way more vocal about it and gather more parents who are interested in making healthy changes, for good.

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