Almost exactly one year ago, I wrote a piece for Civil Eats asking a question that had been on my mind for several years: why are school breakfasts often loaded with added sugars, even after the implementation of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act nutritional reforms?
That question was prompted by seeing the breakfasts served in my own district, Houston ISD, where a child selecting from the daily menu offerings could easily choose a meal like this:
In general, I don’t like to publicly chastise Houston ISD for flaws in its meal program. For one thing, I genuinely like the people who run the department and don’t want to embarrass them. More importantly, though, I feel that most of those deficiencies reflect larger forces that are in no way unique to my district. So while I used HISD menus as an example in the Civil Eats piece, I also gave our district’s senior administrator for Nutrition Services an opportunity to comment on them, and I took pains in the story to make clear that sugary school breakfasts are a national problem, borne of a variety of factors which I examined in detail.
The Civil Eats story reached an unusually wide audience, having been picked up by both Yahoo! News and the Houston Chronicle, and despite my efforts to be as even-handed as possible, HISD Nutrition Services management must have felt that its reputation had been damaged. Soon after the Civil Eats piece came out, four Nutrition Services employees devoted what must have been considerable time and effort (not to mention the taxpayer dollars that directly pay their salaries) to write a scholarly article for the Journal of Applied Research on Children: Informing Policy for Children at Risk entitled “Sugar In School Breakfasts: A School District’ s Perspective.” The piece was essentially the district’s apologia for its sugar-laden school breakfasts, citing many of the same factors I discussed in Civil Eats.
I was somewhat surprised to learn of the journal article, which my friend and colleague Casey Hinds tweeted to me; no mention of it had ever been made during several Nutrition Services Parent Advisory Committee (PAC) meetings discussing sugary breakfasts. But I decided not to comment on the matter one way or the other, because I was so pleased by the district’s promises for significant reform. Specifically, as I happily reported here on The Lunch Tray in October, 2015:
After hearing the concerns of the HISD Nutrition Services Parent Advisory Committee, our school food department informed us yesterday that it has already reduced the number of times juice is served to our children from five days a week to three, that it’s switching over to a lower-sugar (but not artificially sweetened) juice, and that it’s entirely eliminating Craisins (which contain six teaspoons of sugar per serving) from the breakfast menu. This means our kids are now getting more fresh fruit each week, in the form of apple slices, bananas and whole apples. The district also promises to introduce more protein entrees in the coming months, in lieu of sweetened grain items.
Those reforms were all implemented with surprising speed, and I thought the worst of our sugary breakfast problem was behind us.
Now look at this photo of one child’s HISD school breakfast, served this morning:
A glance at HISD’s posted breakfast menus confirms that this meal is not an aberration. Sugar-sweetened Craisins, which were supposed to be “entirely eliminated,” are now back on the menu – along with their six teaspoons of added sugar, the maximum amount recommended for children by the American Heart Association for an entire day.
Further examination of the breakfast menu reveals that the promise to reduce the appearance of juice from five days to three has also been broken.
Next week* Late last month, a “fruit juice blend” is was served every single day; during other weeks, juice appears a minimum of four times:
And while the promised protein entrees do appear on the menu, out of 44 entrees offered in the month of October (children may choose from two options each day), only 11 are protein entrees. The remaining 33 entrees are still sugar-sweetened, grain-based items.
To be clear, having researched this topic in detail for Civil Eats last year, I’m perhaps more sympathetic than most advocates to the real difficulties HISD and other districts face when trying to reduce the sugar content of their breakfast menus. What has me deeply concerned this morning is my district’s quiet rolling back of express promises made to PAC members, perhaps with the hope that none of us would even notice.
As I mentioned here last month, as of this fall, both of my children are in a private high school. Technically speaking, this means I should no longer be able to serve on the Nutrition Services PAC, of which I’ve been a member since 2010. But when I raised this issue at a meeting last spring, I was surprised when members of the Nutrition Services staff urged me to stay on the committee, even if I’m not technically a “parent” under its charter. I was pleased by this outcome, as my interest in Houston school food reform has never been motivated by my own kids, who generally preferred the packed lunches I was happy to provide.
But in recent days, I’ve been seriously questioning this decision to stay on the PAC. By filling one of five slots afforded to my district trustee, Mike Lunceford, I may well be keeping other, active HISD parents away from important discussions that directly affect their kids. Indeed, just last week, I spoke to a concerned parent at an elementary school in Lunceford’s district who would be a perfect candidate for the PAC, but it’s my understanding that she can join only if I step down.
And then there’s that sentence I wrote at the start of this post:
“I genuinely like the people who run the department and don’t want to embarrass them.”
The hard truth is, sometimes school district employees – even very nice ones – need to be called out for breaches of trust and for practices that fail to promote the health of the children in their care. And I’m starting to realize that my personal relationships with the people running our school food department may be impeding my ability to speak out as forcefully as I should about some of the very real problems I see.
So, with this post, I’m hereby resigning from the PAC. I do so with some regret, in part because I will lose regular access to information about HISD that has informed my general understanding of how large urban school food programs operate. But I like to think I’ve reached a point in my advocacy and writing career where I can rely on school food professionals around the country, not just those in HISD, to help me fill in those blanks. At any rate, I hope so.
I will, however, continue to serve on HISD’s School Health Advisory Council, of which I’ve also been a member since 2010, as my official status on that committee has always been “community member” rather than “HISD parent.” This committee also has direct impact on school nutrition in HISD, including through the drafting of a new district wellness policy.
Before closing, I must recognize two of my fellow PAC members, Lisa Brooks and Stephanie Dubroff-Acosta, who are the only other parents who have been on the committee with me since its inception. We’ve seen a lot of parents drift in and out of the PAC over the years, some managing to attend only one or two meetings before dropping out, and our little trio has been the only constant over the last six years. I’m so sorry to reduce you to a duo this morning, but I hope you’ll continue to offer your valuable insights and suggestions on the PAC for the good of HISD’s kids.
* This post was updated on 9/20/16 at 10:08pm CST to reflect the fact that juice was served daily during a week in late August.
Please also see the follow-up to this post: “Yesterday’s Post: It’s Not About the Sugar”
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