TLT Exclusive: Frustrated High Schoolers Boycott Houston School Food

by Bettina Elias Siegel on April 14, 2011

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.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Central Restaurant Products April 14, 2011 at 7:41 am

It’s so encouraging to see students actually standing up for themselves and fighting for better, more nutritious meals. I’ve heard so often that in recent years schools of every size have gone from cooking their own food to pre-packaged. I keep wondering what the reasoning behind this is. Is it that the schools are getting larger or is it more from the dietary guidelines?

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Bettina Elias Siegel April 14, 2011 at 8:22 pm

CPR: I think it’s a way of cutting down on labor costs – fewer people to prep and serve. And yes, I love that this kid decided to do something!

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Mara April 14, 2011 at 8:07 am

I love that the kids are trying to effect change. The sad thing is how many families that have to rely on that school lunch because they need the financial assistance. Some can’t afford to turn down the free meal. Maybe kids that can could bring an extra lunch for a pal to make a boycott more effective. I know at the high school my kids are about to attend the Pto makes money by selling chik-fil-a ecstasy. Not exactly a healthy option but even if it were still creating a culture of haves and have nots.

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Bettina Elias Siegel April 14, 2011 at 8:32 am

Mara: One thing I left out of this story was the envy these students feel when they hear about affluent schools that have “competitive” food like Chick-Fil-A on campus. (Hector, the boy I interviewed, said he heard from a buddy that Lamar has a Starbucks on campus. I have no idea if that’s true – sounds implausible – but it showed that kids in these low income schools realize that the food landscape is not equal.) That said, almost all competitive food is actually being sold in violation of TX Dept. of Agriculture rules, and this is the very issue I was working on on the plane – trying to put a stop to it. Another thing I left out of the story, but which is worth noting, is that when the kids are boycotting they’re not packing a lunch from home, they’re getting fast food brought in by their parents. Hector attributed that to the fact that people in his area are relatively poor, but of course it really shows a lack of nutrition education since a decent lunch could be packed for the same cost as a fast food meal. And that raises another, really important issue — even if HISD did a 180 and started offering these kids a fresh salad bar or whatever, would they even eat it? Or do they just want better prepared burgers and pizza, because that’s what they know? I asked Hector but didn’t get a clear answer to that question.

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Karen April 14, 2011 at 2:00 pm

Bettina, maybe Hector’s friends are getting fast food lunches not because they or their parents lack an understanding of nutrition, but because they don’t have the time to shop for and prepare healthy lunches. Some of my [highly educated] work peers eat restaurant food almost every night because they don’t have the energy to prepare a meal at home. Without leftovers or planning ahead for a lunch box, what’s left is take-out.

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Bettina Elias Siegel April 14, 2011 at 8:11 pm

Excellent point.. I stand corrected.

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Karen April 15, 2011 at 10:34 am

Well, I hope I didn’t seem like I thought you were wrong. Just offering another possibility. Who knows why people make the choices they do? Perhaps it’s a peer thing – if Hector showed up at school with a brown bag lunch that included, say, a thermos of tofu fried rice plus a serving of fruit and a yogurt dessert, what would his friends think? It would be great to get some feedback from Hector and his peer group about what they think constitutes a healthy lunch, and what they are able to do (at home) to improve their own lunch options.

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Bettina Elias Siegel April 16, 2011 at 7:14 am

I did try to push Hector to tell me what the kids DID want and it was hard to pin him down. When I asked if they would like, e.g, a salad bar, I got a long pause and then a response along the lines of, well, we might try anything since the current food is so bad. But it still begs the question, why not head over to this other line and try something there? I personally have had some of the entrees on that line and they were really GOOD, at least when served to me by a white-coated chef at HISD HQ. Whether they arrive at Milby in the same condition I can’t say. I do hope Hector comes through with photos, or maybe I need to take a TLT field trip.

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Louise Goldberg April 14, 2011 at 9:02 pm

This breaks my heart. I’m proud of this kid but sad because I don’t feel optimistic about his boycott having any impact (maybe it’s just the time of day..ask me again in the morning when I’m recharged!).

btw, BES-incredible piece. I’m in awe. How fortuitous that fate had placed you next to that teacher on the plane so you could give Sanchez’s boycott a louder voice. Bravo! Going to re-post on my FB page.

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Bettina Elias Siegel April 14, 2011 at 11:17 pm

Louise – I was really happy to be able to get this student’s voice heard, and tomorrow I’ll post HISD’s response. And thank you for reposting on FB! I always appreciate it when readers do that. – Bettina

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