On a flight to New York City this past weekend, I was catching up on a project for our School Health Advisory Council when my seat mate noticed the Houston ISD logo on my paperwork. She asked if I worked for the district, so I explained what I was doing and that I write The Lunch Tray. My seat mate told me she’s a teacher at Milby High School, an almost 100% Hispanic, relatively low income school in far east Houston, near the city’s Ship Channel. She was interested to hear about my blog because, according to her, the students at Milby are so unhappy with HISD school food that they had planned a boycott for this week.
The teacher said she herself had eaten the school food regularly while teaching summer school and had been surprised to gain five pounds during that month (according to her, nothing else in her lifestyle had changed). She said she wholeheartedly agreed with the students’ main complaint about the food, which is that, in her words, “It’s nothing but burgers and pizza, or burgers and chicken, all the time.”
When I got back to Houston I was able to track down the movement’s leader, Milby junior Hector Sanchez. Asked what motivated him to propose a boycott, he said, “I was thinking about the kind of food they give us. The teachers and students – they won’t eat it. It’s nasty. The quality is just really bad. They all complain about the food, so how come we don’t do anything about it? I started thinking about it and that’s how I started the boycott. I thought, if I want to change something, I have to be doing something.” Sanchez agreed that the students’ major complaint is the lack of variety in the school food. “Every day we always get pizzas and burgers — that’s it. That’s all we get. Maybe once every two weeks we get nachos or hot dogs, but it’s like really nasty cheese and it’s just really disgusting.”
When I looked at the current HISD high school menu, it shows three types of meal options, “Favorites,” “Grill” and “Pizzeria.” The latter two menus offer almost nothing but burgers and pizza, while the “Favorites” menu offers far more variety, including things like sandwiches, salads, and cheese and fruit plates. Based on Sanchez’s and the teacher’s description of the meals at Milby, it sounds like the “Favorites” menu may not be offered there. However, that would be somewhat surprising, and I’m currently investigating with HISD Food Services.
In addition to the lack of variety, the students are upset with the poor preparation of the food – burgers are frequently described as “pink,” and the pizza as “frozen.” One student complained on the boycott’s Facebook page that the milk is “sour” and another told me that “The fries are always cold & taste raw!! The food is always under cooked.” (I’ve written here before about the district’s inability to ensure that its food is properly reheated and presented at each of its almost 300 schools (“Many a Slip Twixt Kitchen and School”)).
When I asked Sanchez what the students hoped to gain from the boycott, he said, “Food that they actually cook and something that’s healthy for us. Supposedly what they have is healthy, but I know for a fact that it’s not healthy at all.” He then said that if he could speak to someone in authority over the school food, he’d ask whether that person “would like his son to be eating that kind of food. And if not, why do we need to eat that?”
Coincidentally, my conversation with Sanchez took place only an hour or so after interviewing Chef Paul Boundas, the “Chicago Miracle Worker” recently profiled in the Chicago Tribune for his exceptional school meals. Boundas and I had talked about the fact that, having invested $52 million in a huge central kitchen, Houston is unlikely to ever return to cooking food on site at each school, the sort of scratch cooking Boundas advocates.
I know there are many advantages to central kitchens (improved food safety, quality control, etc.) and experts like Janet Poppendieck (one of my personal school food heroes) support their use, but I hung up the phone with Boundas feeling depressed. No “scratch-cooked” food from a central kitchen will ever look or taste like well-prepared food cooked on site, if only because it has to be quick chilled, encased in plastic, frozen and shipped before reheating. At its best, food prepared from a central kitchen will always be, as Jamie Oliver put it on Tuesday night, the equivalent of “airline food.” At its worst, it can be undercooked, overcooked or just plain unappetizing.
Sanchez, in his own way, had come to the same realization. He told me, “I know the manager from the cafeteria and she was telling me that she has twenty years working here. And she tells me that back then they actually cooked the food here, and she’s like, now, the food is made at a facility and it’s all frozen and we just put it in the oven and and give it to you all.” Sanchez paused and then asked, “What is that? Is that any good for us?”
While Sanchez has no firm figures regarding the boycott, he said that a cafeteria worker did tell him that there were far fewer students eating the school meal than normal.
“I feel really proud,” said Sanchez. ”I feel really good about it. I hope it pays off.”
I’ll keep you posted of any further developments at Milby as well as any response to the boycott or this post from HISD Food Services. And my interview with Chef Boundas will be up in the coming days. Stay tuned.