For many years now, I’ve sat in school food conferences and listened to (or heard about) people like Ann Cooper of the Boulder Valley School District, Bertrand Weber of Minneapolis Public Schools and Betti Wiggins of Detroit Public Schools – all committed, caring school food professionals who’ve radically transformed their district’s meals for the better.
And all I could think during those conferences was, “Why not Houston?”
One answer to that plaintive question has always been: “Aramark.” For the past 20 years, Houston ISD has retained Aramark to oversee its operations and I’ve been told that no school food visionary would want to come to a district that isn’t self-operating. But last week, HISD announced that it will not be renewing its Aramark contract. (More here in the Houston Chronicle.) That means Houston school food is about to enter a fresh new era.
I’m not authorized to speak for my district, which will of course handle the selection and hiring of a new school food services director on its own. (The official job listing is here.) But as a concerned Houston citizen and former HISD parent, one who served for six years on its Nutrition Services Parent Advisory Committee, let me offer this personal pitch to any ambitious, dedicated and progressive school food professional out there reading this post:
There are so many reasons why this district, which is the seventh largest in the country, can – and should – be a true national leader when it comes to healthy school food. Here are just a few:
- HISD’s Food Services Support Facility is the largest school district central kitchen in the country. It turns out over 200,000 meals a day for our 300 schools, boasting an 80,000 square-foot food storage and distribution center and 95,000 square feet devoted to food production, including areas for baking, cook/chill and cold prep. The central kitchen isn’t perfect – I’m told it lacks the necessary drainage for certain fresh fruit and vegetable prep – but it clearly has tremendous potential. It could even be used to produce food for nearby school districts and other entities, putting that much more money back into our meal program.
- I don’t love the idea of improving school food via private funding and would rather the federal government increase reimbursement across the board. But on a practical level, I’ve long thought that HISD Nutrition Services has failed to take full advantage of the generous, warm-hearted spirit of this city, which has one of the healthiest philanthropic sectors in the country. I’m convinced there are many organizations and individual donors out there who would willingly invest in better school meals to improve the health of future Houstonians – and our future economy.
- Proof that Houstonians care about these issues? Two nonprofits that have garnered well-deserved national attention for improving kids’ eating habits – Recipe for Success and Brighter Bites – got their start in Houston.
- Houston is also home to the Texas Medical Center, the largest medical complex on the planet, including the world’s largest children’s hospital. These healthcare professionals and organizations understand better than most the importance of fostering good eating habits in childhood, and could be an ongoing source of funding and support.
- HISD has the Parent Advisory Committee for Nutrition Services I mentioned above, a group of committed parents who want better HISD school food and are ready to help in any way possible. The district also has an active, award-winning School Health Advisory Council that fully supports a healthier school food environment.
Now, I can already hear you saying, “Gee, that all sounds great, but …. Houston???”
As an extremely reluctant Houston transplant – I literally burst into tears during the ride from the airport to our new home back in 2001 – I know exactly what you’re thinking. But now I adore this city – and here’s why you will, too. Houston:
- is among the fastest growing cities in America, offering its residents affordable housing, no state income tax and beautiful weather throughout the fall, winter and spring. (As for the summer heat. . . . well, I can’t sugarcoat it, but you do get used to it).
- is a remarkably open and accepting city. David Brooks of the New York Times got it right when he recently praised Houston’s “very strong, very patriotic and cohesive culture, built around being welcoming to newcomers and embracing the future.”
- is the most diverse city in the country (more so than New York City, amazingly), with over 145 languages spoken in Houston homes and at least 100 spoken just within HISD.
- has a thriving arts scene comprised of 500 cultural, visual and performing arts organizations, including our beloved art cars, the Rothko Chapel and the Menil. We’re second only to Broadway for our number of theater seats, and the Houston Grand Opera is the only U.S. opera company currently in the running to be named the best in the world.
- is home to a seriously amazing food scene, thanks to all the diversity described above. The Washington Post calls Houston one of the “10 Best Food Cities in America,” as does Travel & Leisure, while the New York Times acknowledges “Houston’s culinary bragging rights” and GQ calls our city “the next global food mecca.”
- offers the best margaritas you’ll ever drink – perfect for kicking back after a satisfying day of turning out the healthiest school food in the nation.
Are you sold? I hope so. Apply here, or send this post on to anyone you think might be interested.
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