A Kid-and-Food Link Round-Up!

It’s been great taking a little break from daily posting these past two weeks.  I’ve been relaxing, hanging with my kids and I finally finished that family cookbook I optimistically started way back in January!  (I’m going to write a post next month showing a little of the final product and sharing my tips for anyone else considering this project.)

But my blogging laziness means there are a lot of kid-and-food news items to catch you up on. Here’s a round-up of links:

My Op-Ed in Sunday’s Houston Chronicle:

For those of you who don’t follow The Lunch Tray on Facebook or Twitter (and really, people, you’re missing out on a lot of good stuff!), yesterday the Houston Chronicle ran my op-ed regarding school food here in Houston, the nation’s seventh largest district.   I ask our school officials to reconsider our fourteen-year-long privatization of school food via outsourcing to Aramark, and I ask them to assess the feasibility of a return to scratch cooking.   I’ll let you know if the piece leads to any action.

9-Year-Old Child Chokes to Death in School Lunch Room

Various media outlets reported over the weekend about the tragic death of Jonathan Jewth, a Brooklyn nine-year-old who choked to death on a meatball in his school cafeteria on December 5th.  According to the New York Post, which first broke the story, helpless lunchroom workers stood by and did nothing for the child except suggest that he use his own fingers to dislodge the food.   I’m going to write a little more about this terrible incident in the coming days.

Food Industry Push-Back on Voluntary Federal Guidelines for Marketing to Kids

Back in July I told you that Congress, at the behest of the food industry, was seeking a cost-benefit analysis of the purely voluntary federal guidelines on marketing food for kids — an obvious attempt to bury the guidelines for good.  Over the weekend, Appetite for Profift posted an interesting and detailed analysis of this legislative tactic, going so far as to question its very legality in this context.   Meanwhile, the Center for Science in the Public Interest is sending around an appeal, asking people to contact their legislators to protest the move.  You can find that here.

Using Exercise as a Scare Tactic Might Fight Obesity

Fooducate reported on a recent study showing that providing teens with information about the exercise needed to burn off calories in sugary drinks reduced the purchase rate of those drinks by 50%.  This approach is similar to one used by Jamie Oliver in last season’s “Food Revolution,” in which high schoolers were required to walk around a track wearing weighted backpacks, with the number of laps correlated to the particular snack they’d just eaten.  I’d applauded that exercise back then (with some minor reservations) and this recent study supports the strategy as one that might really alter teen eating behavior.

Still More Links to Check Out . . . .

Will the FDA finally get BPA out of our canned food?

An interesting piece from the New York Times on rethinking infant feeding strategies in the age of obesity.

Obesity rates drop a bit among NYC kids, but causation is unclear.

sandwich to rival the Candwich in shelf life – it stays fresh for two years! (hat tip:  Charles Kuffner).

A kiwi is transformed into the Grinch.

Humble kale is transformed into elegant jewelry.

And finally, some really mouthwatering ideas for Hannukah, which starts at sundown tomorrow.



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A Scathing Critique of Privatized School Food

Yesterday’s New York Times Sunday Review section had a scathing critique of the growing privatization of school food through the hiring of food service management companies (FSMCs) such as Aramark, Sodexo and Chartwells.

Written by Lucy Komisar and entitled “How the Food Industry Eats Your Kid’s Lunch,” the piece points out FSMCs “cozy relationship” with major food manufacturers like Tyson, ConAgra and Pilgrim’s, in which districts pay these companies substantial fees to turn whole commodity foods provided free by the federal government (such as fruits, potatoes and raw poultry) into highly processed, far less nutritious foods (French fries, chicken nuggets, etc.).  Komisar reports that in return many FSMCs receive financial rebates from processors (which FSMCs are legally required to pass on to districts, although some have been fined heavily for failing to do so) or “prompt payment discounts,” which Komisar says “are really rebates under another name.”  (FMSC rebates have been discussed several times previously here, when I pointed readers to good reporting on the issue by school food blogger Ed Bruske.)

It’s a commonly held belief that FSMCs save school districts money, primarily by reducing labor costs.  (Here in Houston, organized labor was vehemently opposed to the hiring of Aramark by then-superintendent Rod Paige in 1997.)   And use of food processors is one way those costs are reduced:  it obviously takes more and better skilled labor to prepare and cook potentially dangerous raw proteins like whole chicken parts than it does to simply heat up fully cooked nuggets from Tyson.  (This trade-off was examined in further detail in TLT’s recent coverage of a landmark purchase of raw chicken parts by Chicago Public Schools.)

But Komisar, citing a study conducted by Roland Zullo at the University of Michigan, questions the notion that FSMCs (and, implicitly, their heavy reliance on processed foods) save schools money.  The Zullo study, from 2008, looked at various costs associated with school food including transportation, labor, food costs, and supplies and found that Michigan schools using FSMCs spent less on labor and food but more money on fees to the FSMC and on supplies, resulting in “no substantive economic savings.”

That finding that runs counter to popularly held beliefs about FSMCs, supposedly models of efficiency, and, indeed, Zullo found that when school district officials were simply asked about cost savings, many were under the impression that their FSMC was saving their district money, even when that was not the case.  On the other hand, it’s also important to remember that such cost/benefit analyses are likely to be highly district-specific, as labor (and other) costs can be significantly greater in one geographic area than in another.

Yet the Zullo study raises important questions, ones which should be answered in any district using a FSMC.  In today’s Spork Report I ask some of those questions about Aramark’s role in overseeing Houston ISD school food.  I’ll let you know what I find out.

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Social Stigma and Social Media on the Lunch Line

Two days ago, New York Times national education correspondent Sam Dillon had a front page story on the sharp increase in the number of formerly middle class households now taking advantage of free or reduced price school lunches for their children, a stark indicator of the nation’s current economic woes.

I subscribe to the print edition of the Times but I look at certain stories online to access to reader comments.  And the very first comment left on Dillon’s story, by a father who recently had to enroll his child in the meal program, nearly broke my heart:

I have read this article twice in this past day, deciding to share it with my child who is on the free-lunch program. We found it nearly shameful to participate since I had , had the where with all financially to support us. My child slinked into school to have breakfast until the very approachable principal started having breakfast himself with the children. Making breakfast no longer an economic mark on the children, verses lunch. Then the awesome principal commenced learning all 1000 kids names and swooping in busing the tables, checking in with the student body at both lunch periods and making certain all kids who were not eating had money to buy food, or he whipped out his wallet and gave them the money to go buy lunch. Later, discreetly helping the student onto the lunch program.

Somehow reading this article and looking over and over at the graphics of the neediest States using the free or reduced lunch program slightly eased my own shame and/or guilt; because I still hardly believe this is our reality. If my parents or grandparents were still alive they would be appalled that I was not self sufficient in raising my child.

Reading the comment carefully, you understand that the father (and child) feel less shame about taking advantage of school meals at breakfast, where the service is universal (available to all regardless of economic need) versus at lunch, where there is often a more visible distinction between paying and nonpaying students, or between students on the federally reimbursable lunch line versus those who can purchase for-cash (and often more desirable) “a la carte” food, or (in the case of high schoolers) between students who can go off campus to buy lunch at convenience stores and restaurants versus those with no money in their pockets.

But a lesser-noticed story published that same day on the Times School Book blog reported that New York City is being forced to cut its Universal Meals Program, which had previously insured that all children at some predominantly low-income schools received free lunches, without demonstrating economic need — and therefore without risking social stigma by taking the school meal.

That’s a tragic development, but the fact that New York City was ever providing universal free lunch at some schools is admirable.  Here in Houston, like most other districts, our breakfast program is universal but our lunch service is not, and our cafeterias offer both federally reimbursed and “a la carte” foods.  Indeed, in a forthcoming Spork Report post I’ll share photos of some new, attractive dining concepts recently introduced by HISD/Aramark — some of which are only for cash payment (i.e., the meals are not eligible for federal reimbursement.)

A new twist on stigma in the lunch room.

Yet because 80% or more of HISD students qualify for free or reduced price meals, I’ve often wondered if stigma is really an issue in my district; in other words, if most kids qualify for federal assistance, maybe there’s less shame in taking advantage of those benefits.  But when I asked this question yesterday at our Food Services Parent Advisory Committee meeting, I learned that not only does stigma remain a real issue at some schools, there’s now a troubling, modern-day twist on the problem:  on some campuses, hapless kids standing in the federally reimbursable meal line are having their pictures taken by other students’ cell phones, with the photos then uploaded to Facebook and/or texted around the school along with disparaging messages about the child’s economic status.  Not surprisingly, students in these schools are willing to forego lunch entirely, rather than risk this sort of high-tech social ostracism.

Between the cuts to New York City’s universal meal program and last year’s Congressional failure to adequately fund the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, it’s clear that we’re a very long way away from school food expert Janet Poppendieck’s utopian vision of school meals “free for all.”  Maybe we’ll reach that goal eventually, but right now there are kids in American schools going hungry every single day, simply to avoid the shame of taking advantage of free or reduced price school food.

[For more on the stigma issue, here are two prior Lunch Tray/Spork Report posts you may want to read:  “A La Carte — A World Apart?” and “A Follow-Up to the Infamous ‘Cheetos-and-Nach0-Sauce’ Photo.”]


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Some Good School Food News Out of Houston ISD (Part One)

At the last Houston ISD Food Services Parent Advisory Committee meeting of the school year, we were given a lot of information about some promising changes ahead in school food for the 2011-12 school year.  So much information, in fact, that I kept putting off writing it all up for TLT because I knew it would take considerable time to give you the details and get them right (but that’s a good problem to have, no?).  I envisioned a post toward the end of the summer when school food would be back on the minds of interested Houston (and other) readers.

But yesterday HISD announced some of the upcoming changes in its e-newsletter and a lot of people have asked me for more information.  Because I’m out of town right now I don’t have access to my complete notes from the meeting, but here’s a sneak preview, with a full post to follow as soon as possible:

Reduced Sugar in Flavored Milk

As I’ve mentioned on TLT several times, some school districts around the country have successfully worked with local dairies to obtain flavored milk with a lower sugar content.  I advocated just this strategy as a way of striking a middle ground between parents and health professionals who want to see flavored milk in schools and parents who are concerned about the sugar content (“My Problem with Jamie Oliver’s War on Flavored Milk.”).

At the last PAC meeting, HISD told us that it is eliminating strawberry milk in the coming school year (always a less popular flavor) and will be offering chocolate milk, now fat-free and with reduced sugar.   My best recollection from the meeting is that the reduction is an improvement — but not a huge drop in the number of grams of added sugar.  I’ll give further details in Part Two of this post, including information about high fructose corn syrup and artificial additives in the reformulated milk.

Salad Bars in Twenty Schools

HISD has obtained a grant from the Houston Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association to place salad bars in twenty HISD schools.  I’ll provide the list of schools when I have it.

I’m sure one goal in instituting the salad bars is to determine how enthusiastically they’re received by students.  On this blog and elsewhere we have heard from schools where salad bars are a hit with children and increase their intake of fruits and vegetables, but we’ve also heard reports of salad bars sitting unused, perhaps because the offerings are unappealing (too many canned or limp items, for example) or because students weren’t given advance education about the salad bars to work up some interest.  I’ll be very interested to see how salad bars are received here in HISD and will share any data from HISD as it becomes available.

“Cool*Cafs” Coming to Select HISD Schools

Aramark, HISD’s food service management company, has now instituted its “Cool*Caf” dining concept in several HISD high schools and has or soon will be bringing elements of the Cool*Caf concept to designated elementary schools as well.  The Cool*Caf includes new signage, better lunch room design (including some elements that are aligned with Dr. Wansink’s research about encouraging students to make healthier choices –“Interview with Dr. Brian Wansink, Master of Lunchroom Trickery“) and most importantly, at least at the high school level, changes to the food.

I’ll provide all the details in Part Two of this post, but my overall impression from the meeting is that the new high school menu additions represent a meaningful improvement over past offerings.  The Food Services PAC saw photos at the meeting of taco bars where students could fill a taco shell or whole grain tortilla with numerous healthful offerings – beans, cheese, tomatoes, scratch-made salsas, meats, sour cream, etc.  — and as long as certain elements were taken by the student, the taco or burrito would qualify as a federally reimbursable meal.  On the a la carte (i.e., “paying”) side of the Cool*Caf, students could obtain made-to-order sandwiches and pressed paninis, as well as items like fresh cut-up fruits and vegetables and grab-and-go lunches.  The PAC members at the meeting were impressed with the appearance and apparent quality of the food – something we’d all happily eat for lunch ourselves.

Much more about Cool*Cafs in the follow-up to this post, and when school resumes here in Houston I hope to give a direct report from one of the new Cool*Cafs, including a review of the food.

More Local Produce in Schools

HISD also reports that it’s working with Texas famers to bring more local produce to school lunch trays and that in the fall it will feature a “Harvest of the Month” selection to give students an opportunity to try fruits and vegetables prepared in different ways.

* * *

There were other changes discussed at the meeting and more details to share about the changes listed above.  Part Two of this post, with greater detail and analysis, will be up as soon as I return to Houston.




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Why I Just Rained on Someone’s School Food Reform Parade

I feel a bit like a heel this morning.

I just discovered a great new blog (well, new to me), called Kelly the Kitchen Kop, devoted to “healthy cooking, traditional food, vibrant health” and “busting ‘politically correct’ health and nutrition information.”   What caught my eye was this morning’s lead post, entitled, “Jane Hersey: Improving School Food Is Not That Difficult – Here’s How.”

As a member of Houston ISD’s Food Services Parent Advisory Committee (and now also HISD’s Student Health Advisory Council), and as someone who is very much “in the weeds” on this issue, meaningful school food reform seems nearly impossible to me on my darkest days.  On my more optimistic days, I feel like we can get there — but only when so many young people are dropping like flies from obesity-related diseases that even the most fiscally conservative Congressperson will cough up more funding (and I’m not talking about a paltry 6 cents) to improve school food.

So, as you can see, even on my most optimistic days, I’m still quite the downer.

Maybe that’s why I snorted my coffee when I saw the headline promising that school food reform is “not that difficult.”  ‘Cause if it’s not that difficult, we’re all doing something very wrong.

I read the post about Jane Hersey, who is the director of the Feingold Association, an organization that helps families feed their children healthfully.  In Kelly’s summary of her interview with Jane, she says that Jane believes that

if a school wants to keep using convenience food from distributors, they can get it with natural ingredients if you ask and make them look for it, and chances are it won’t cost any more money.  (Tell them for example that you want a fruit drink actually made with fruit.)

or that

Some schools are doing a lot of food prep from scratch and finding that it saves them big dollars!

Here’s an excerpt of what I said in reply:

I have to say — and I’m sorry to be the wet blanket here — that when you’re dealing with a food service management company like Chartwells, Aramark, Sodexo, et. al (in our case, Aramark) — some of what Jane is saying strikes me as pie-in-the-sky. For example, I think it’s patently untrue that “chances are, [food with natural ingredients] won’t cost any more money.” Nor do I believe that doing prep work from scratch is also likely to save a school district money — what about the significant labor costs associated with all that scratch prep?

Please know that I’m not trying to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm for school food reform — I’m out there trying as much as anyone to get it done. But I fear that Jane may be creating false expectations that much can be achieved with a mere snap of the fingers when — at least in a large, urban district like mine, with a FSMC to boot — I’m finding that it’s a much slower, more painful battle. And anyone who wants to join the fight needs to be prepared for that.

Afterwards, I felt that maybe I’d been unfair to Jane Hersey, so I took the time to actually listen to the one-hour audio file of Kelly’s interview with her.   In the interview, Jane points out how movie theater popcorn costs so much more than the actual corn itself, or that a box of prepared rice pilaf mix costs more than a bag of rice and a handful of spices.  From this premise, she extrapolates that schools which rely on prepared food from distributors are could be saving money by cooking from scratch.  But what her argument seems to miss (as noted in my comment), is that food preparation from scratch means labor, and labor means significant money.  Why do we think Aramark, the most ruthlessly cost-cutting enterprise you’re likely to come across, would choose to buy boxed, pre-scrambled, preservative-laden eggs vs. paying a happy assembly line of workers to crack fresh eggs into a vat?

I don’t disagree, however, with another point Jane makes on both the blog and in the audio interview, which is that serving children subpar food can result in costs on the back end, and she’s not just talking about healthcare costs but the higher costs of educating a child who can’t concentrate or pay attention.  The problem is, it’s very hard to convince a school district to connect those dots, especially when food services groups operate as self-sustaining entities with a budget unrelated to the rest of the district.

We’re all comrades-in-arms here, and we’re all trying to reach the same goal.  I appreciate all that Jane is doing on her end and hate to rain on anyone’s parade.

But I do I think it’s important to be realists about what we’re up against.  In the words of my old buddy Sun Tzu:  “If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.”

[Ed. Update:  Jane responded to this post, and I replied to her response, and then she commented back, and meanwhile a whole lot of other people chimed in, and  . . .  well, you get the idea.  All of that can be found here.]

My Promised Rant: Is Nutrition Education Achieved Through Poster or Plate?

[Ed. Note: Remember last week when I posted about the steamed bok choy served in Houston ISD lunch rooms –and the educational flier posted that day?  I told you I felt a serious rant coming on . . . and here, finally, is said rant.]

At our last Houston ISD/Aramark Food Services Parent Advisory Committee meeting in September, an Aramark executive flown in from corporate headquarters in Philadelphia gave a presentation about the company’s nutrition education efforts.  As part of the company’s new “Healthy for Life” initiative, Aramark has created an array of brochures intended to teach parents about
healthy eating, as well as a special cardboard display box (called a “Wellness Education Center”) that will be used to dispense these brochures to parents from school offices.  The executive also talked about the company’s many other nutrition education programs, including the continued use of their furry mascot, a creature named “Ace,” who visits schools to teach kids about nutrition and exercise, and the use of posters, like the previously mentioned one about bok choy, which feature a fruit or vegetable of the month “to introduce students of all ages to seasonal produce.”

As I watched this executive go through her Power Point presentation, slide after slide testifying to the company’s concern about student health, I really felt I was going to lose it.  When the executive concluded her presentation and asked for feedback, I couldn’t restrain myself.

What I said, in essence, was that nutrition education is all well and good, but what we’re really teaching children about nutrition starts with the food we serve them.  And here’s what Aramark was offering Houston elementary school children for lunch during the week prior to our meeting:   breaded chicken sandwiches, cheeseburgers, chicken fried steak fingers with cream gravy, beef taco nachos, beef taco salad, pepperoni pizza and Frito Pie (the latter two entrees served with mashed potatoes).  That, I said, is your nutrition education. So what if we took all the money for the fliers, all the money for the fancy cardboard boxes and all the money for the Ace costumes and used it instead to actually improve the food?

The room fell silent. I confess I felt terrible.  The executive seemed like a very nice woman, and I had blindsided her.  (I apologized afterward for taking the wind out of her sails, and she was very understanding about it.)

But the truth is, I don’t regret my words.  Call me a pessimist, but I can’t imagine that a significant number of parents will ever take the glossy nutrition brochures home, let alone make meaningful life changes based on their contents.  And student posters like the one about bok choy strike me as worth less than the paper they’re printed on.  Children are not little dietitians.  They don’t look at a poster like that and think, “Hmm, I really have neglected my Vitamin A and folic acid intake in recent days.  I’d better eat some bok choy today.”  (I won’t even mention the actual appearance of the bok choy served – you can see the photo here.)

They do, however, learn something about nutrition every time they sit down for lunch at school.  What they’re learning is that food previously consigned to the category of “occasional treat” in our society is now perfectly acceptable daily fare.  (And don’t tell me that the cheese on the pizza is reduced fat, or the crust has 51% whole grain,  or whatever, because not one kid is aware of those modifications.)  They’re learning that mashed potatoes and pepperoni pizza are a fine combination.  That there’s no problem eating fried, breaded red meat topped with cream gravy, then washing it down with a chocolate milk containing as much sugar as a serving of ice cream.

If we were actually trying to set children on a path toward eventual obesity, we could hardly do better.

I don’t lay these problems entirely at Aramark’s feet.  Aramark is a for-profit business charged with keeping our district’s lunch program financially afloat.  In a system in which a la carte foods like pizza, slushies and chips may be sold in competition with the lunch program, and in which children may also opt out the program by bringing lunch from home, or (in upper grade levels) going off campus, offering brown rice, tofu and broccoli is not a sound business choice.  These are fundamental flaws in the National School Lunch Program that need to be addressed at the Congressional level, if we can ever get that accomplished.

Moreover, I have nothing against nutritional fliers and posters, per se.  I’m sure the executives behind Aramark’s health initiatives are well-meaning individuals who sincerely believe that their efforts will bring about positive change. I hope they do.

But when, as I’ve demonstrated elsewhere, a child can become obese simply from eating the very lunch offered by the company touting its nutrition initiatives — regardless of the economic and regulatory forces driving that result – that bok choy poster taped to the wall just seems like a sick joke.

OK, rant over.  Thanks for listening.

Notes From the Field: What Did This Spinach Do to Deserve Such a Fate?

On today’s menu, the kids had a choice of chili mac with a dinner roll or a chicken corn dog; steamed spinach; apple sauce; and the new banana chocolate chip cake the PAC tasted last month.  Here’s a picture:

I was most interested in seeing the steamed spinach, a new item on our menu this year.  When I first heard about the spinach from Houston ISD/Aramark Food Services, I couldn’t see how they were going to pull it off without the end result being limp and overcooked.  It turns out my concerns were well founded.  Not one child at at the table I met with would even touch it.  (And the truth is, even if the leaves had been bright and green, plain steamed spinach is still a pretty spartan dish to plop down in front of a bunch of elementary school students.)

I applaud the desire to serve spinach.  I understand that HISD cooks from a central kitchen and trucks the food to schools, so on-site prep is not in the cards.  And I know all about the absurdly high calorie counts that school districts have to meet under current USDA regulations.

So wouldn’t it make more sense to cook the spinach in a manner that’s more likely to survive transport/reheating AND which bumps up the calories AND which is far more likely to appeal to kids?   How about a baked spinach casserole made with reduced fat cheese and topped with crunchy bread crumbs?  Such a dish would reheat well.  Kids would be getting the calcium we’re so worried about (so much so that we serve artificially colored and flavored milk with as much sugar as a serving of ice cream) and presumably the higher calorie count would mean we don’t need to serve the empty-calorie chocolate chip cake anymore.

What do you think?  Which are kids more likely to try?

If there’s a reason why this proposal is unrealistic, I’d love for someone from HISD/Aramark (or maybe Maggie, the TLT reader who is in school food services in an undisclosed district) to share their thoughts.

Many a Slip Twixt Kitchen and School

Like many large, urban school districts, Houston ISD does almost all of its cooking at a huge central kitchen, with the food then trucked to our 300 individual schools for reheating and other final preparation.  There are a great many advantages to central kitchens, including improved food safety and tighter quality control.  Moreover, despite most people’s prejudice in favor of “on site, scratch cooking,” the food produced in a central kitchen doesn’t have to be depressingly “institutional.”

This morning I attended a Houston ISD/Aramark Food Services Parent Advisory Committee meeting in which I and fellow PAC members were asked to sample several of the new menu items introduced this fall.  We tasted chicken Creole served with brown rice; a Mexican casserole with baked chips, ground meat (part turkey, part beef) and low fat cheeses; BBQ chicken drumsticks and thighs;  the already much-talked about acorn squash; and a banana cake studded with chocolate chips.

My personal verdict?  Really good.  (No, readers, I swear they didn’t slip me any funny Kool-Aid at the meeting.)  The food was attractive, flavorful and definitely something I’d be fine serving my kids.  I think my kids would agree — if they could be persuaded to try it.

The problem, of course, is ensuring that the food leaving the central kitchen in a palatable state is actually served properly by the individual schools.  Many school kitchen workers are relatively unskilled, and they may improvise in preparing food by, e.g., heating it far above the recommended temperature, either out of ignorance or in a misguided attempt to ensure food safety.  (This might explain my daughter’s description of last week’s steamed spinach as “dark green and drippy.”)  Or the problem may be the other extreme, i.e., food that’s served too cold, a complaint I’ve heard a few times in my own children’s lunch room.  Houston ISD Food Services says it’s working on the problem, and may even send to each school photographs of what the finished food is supposed to look like.

I don’t envy the task of a trying to ensure quality control at 300 local schools, and I’ll write more about the issue of on-site quality control as I learn more from my district.  But mostly I just wanted to give some kudos to Houston’s Food Services — the meal served to us this morning was great, and definitely what we want to see more of on our kids’ trays.

Two Addenda re: Houston School Food Improvements

Good news and bad news  . . .

Since I published my post this morning on improvements to HISD school menus, Food Services has informed me that the newly-introduced acorn squash won’t be steamed.  Instead, it’s roasted with cinnamon and brown sugar.  That sounds much more appealing, doesn’t it?

The bad news is that, contrary to what I reported, animal crackers are not being removed from the district’s breakfast menu. Apparently the crackers will be served twice a week for the foreseeable future, although that may change in the late fall.   For those of you scratching your heads, the animal crackers are (rightly or wrongly) served in an effort to meet USDA calorie requirements.  (See my School Lunch FAQs for more on what that’s about.)

I’ve appended an “editorial update” to the original post.

[Ed Update: Actually, it’s graham crackers, not animal.  For more on why any sugary crackers, and whether new school food legislation will end the need for such processed “filler” food, read here.]

Cautious Optimism: Some Promising Developments in Houston School Food

As many readers know, I’ve been serving on a Parent Advisory Committee (PAC) to Houston ISD’s Food Services since its inception last spring.   Like many large urban school districts around the country, HISD has outsourced its food services to a food service management company (FSMC) — in this case, Aramark.  Because of the huge size of our district (230,000 meals served a day) and because of the participation of a for-profit FSMC, I’ve often wondered whether the PAC is little more than a PR exercise, a way to generate nice photos for the Food Services website, but not much more.

Well, to my surprise, there are some signs of actual change happening here in Houston.

Back in early June, the PAC was invited to a brainstorming session in which we were asked to list all the menu changes we’d like to see.  We spent the morning papering a large wall with Post-its, some containing easily achievable suggestions like more legume-based entrees, and some with fervent wishes we knew were unlikely to gain traction, like putting a salad bar in every school, or getting rid of “a la carte” offerings (separately sold chips, desserts, etc.) entirely.

When HISD and the PAC reconvened last week, we learned that many of the PAC’s menu suggestions have already been put into place at the elementary level for the coming school year.  (For interested readers, here’s a PDF of all the recent developments, but please note that this list was prepared for our meeting; it’s not an official HISD document).  Here are some of the highlights:

  • Fruits/Vegetables: Dark green and orange vegetables have been added to the menu, as well as grapes, broccoli florets, carrot sticks and an Italian vegetable bake.  Locally grown items will be added seasonally and more fresh fruit will be added to the breakfast menu (as soon as slicing equipment is obtained).
  • Better Quality Meat:  Whole breast chicken meat has been added to the menu in four new entrees, including a chicken and brown rice vegetable soup, a Creole chicken and the replacement of whole chicken (vs. pulled, processed chicken) in the BBQ sandwich.  Chicken nuggets will be served half as often (two times per month vs. four).  Ground beef recipes will use 50% ground turkey.
  • Whole Grains:  In addition to the whole grains already added to hamburger and hot dog buns, whole grain pasta, brown rice and whole grain tortillas will be used.  (I’m unclear on the percentages of whole grain used and will get more information.)
  • Reduction in Processed Foods:  The Uncrustable sandwich and animal crackers have been removed from breakfast menus (that was already in the works); salad will be offered weekly; a potato-encrusted fish fillet will be served (no scraps or fillers used); and entrees par-fried by food manufacturers will be reduced to nine out of the thirty-eight entrees served.  (HISD had already eliminated on-site frying some time ago.)
  • In Development:  Some of the items and concepts the PAC asked for, such as sandwiches, a greater variety of ethnic food and more legume-based entrees, are being tested now.  These include:  rice-and-bean entrees, stir-fries, rice bowls, a curry, sandwiches and wraps, and a Greek gyro.   HISD is also considering our suggestion that nutrition-boosting vegetable or fruit purees be added to various entrees.

Of course, not everything on our wish list has been granted.  For example, we asked to completely eliminate high fructose corn syrup from the menu but were told that, at present, non-HFCS items are too costly, as were other items requested by some PAC members, such as hummus and edamame.  Also, it sounds like many of the items in development (rice bowls, wraps, etc.) will only be offered on the a la carte line, which, as I’ve written about before, could easily result in a world of haves and have nots when it comes to access to less processed, healthier food.

And three big requests were rejected out of hand (as expected)  – eliminating flavored milk, instituting salad bars and getting rid of a la carte sales.  These issues are important enough that I want to address them in separate blog posts.  I also want to separately discuss the whole question of our current middle and high school menu, which is sorely in need of improvement.

There’s also the critical issue of elementary student education about, and acceptance of, new items.  For example, when I learned that the three new dark green and orange vegetables on the menu– bok choy, spinach and acorn squash – are being served steamed, I got a little worried.  I’m a huge veggie lover, but even I’m slightly turned off by a big pile of steamed squash.  Although I was told that some fat and salt will be used, I still question why HISD isn’t being more creative with these new vegetables – e.g., why not serve a baked spinach with cheese or bread crumbs, or acorn squash roasted with honey or maple syrup and cinnamon, both of which, in addition to being more appealing to kids, are likely to fare better during transport and reheating than a steamed item?

I’m also very concerned that students inured to years of pizza, nuggets and Frito Pie will either refuse to take the new entrees and vegetables from the serving line or they’ll take them and throw them out, leading HISD/Aramark to deem the experiments a costly failure that won’t be continued.  For example, I personally pleaded with HISD to not serve the new entrees (like the chicken and brown rice soup) on the same day as a popular “kid food” item such as pizza; to do so would be a virtual guarantee that the new, more healthful entrées will be a big flop.

In conjunction with this concern, we discussed the fact that HISD/Aramark doesn’t have nearly enough dieticians to go into every school to educate about and talk up the new items.   The PAC suggested that parent volunteers, already staffing cafeterias around the district, could be drafted as “food boosters” to explain new foods and encourage sampling, with stickers, presentations and/or just a whole lot of enthusiasm.   In my opinion, food education is of the same critical importance as what’s on the menu, but it seems like it’s often viewed as an afterthought in school food reform.

I’m always a little concerned that, as a PAC member, I’m slowly being co-opted by HISD/Aramark —  snowed by news of small, superficial changes when all we’re really doing, as Dr. Susan Rubin (of the Two Angry Moms) might say, is moving deck chairs on the Titanic.   And for the reasons discussed above (and in my future blog posts about flavored milk, salad bars, a la carte and upper school menus), I think we do still have a long way to go.

But given that the PAC has only been around since the spring, and given that HISD has managed to make some legitimate, positive changes to the menu in just the last three months, I’m keeping an open mind.  And it’s important to give credit where credit’s due.  So, thank you HISD/Aramark for giving us a voice and taking many of our suggestions into account.

We’ll all be watching to see what happens next.

[Ed Update: Good news and bad news  . . . HISD has since informed me that the acorn squash isn’t steamed, it’s roasted with cinnamon and brown sugar.  That sounds much more appealing!  The bad news is that the animal crackers are not being removed from the breakfast menu as discussed at our meeting.  Apparently they will be served twice a week for the foreseeable future , although that may change in the late fall.   For those of you scratching your head, the animal crackers are (rightly or wrongly) served in an effort to meet USDA calorie requirements.  See my School Lunch FAQs for more on what that’s about.]

[Ed Update part 2:  Actually, it’s graham crackers, not animal.  For more on why any sugary crackers, and whether new school food legislation will end the need for such processed “filler” food, read here.]