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Spork Report: A Follow-Up to the Infamous “Cheetos-and-Nacho-Sauce” Photo

Reposted with permission

[Ed. Note: Three weeks ago I published this photo in my first post on The Spork Report, my new HISD school food blog. In the intervening days, the photo has generated a lot of discussion and I felt it was important to circle back and address it, and also to raise some important philosophical questions about how we want to feed our children -- here in Houston ISD and around the country. Here’s the Spork Report post I published today.]

In my first post on this blog I shared a rather shocking photo of one child’s recent “lunch” in an HISD cafeteria: bright red, baked “Flaming Hot Cheetos” doused with nacho cheese sauce. I didn’t want to kick off The Spork Report on such a negative note, but that photo conveyed better than any words my longstanding concern about some of the foods sold by HISD to our kids.

So I decided to go ahead and post the photo in an effort to start a conversation. And in the past three weeks there has been a lot of discussion of those now-infamous red Cheetos — in the blogosphere, in private emails to me, and even among some HISD school officials. It seemed worthwhile, therefore, to loop back to clarify some points which may be causing confusion and to raise some additional questions for your consideration. Was that concoction actually an entree served by HISD?

HISD, mercifully, is not putting on its menu a mixture of Cheetos and melted cheese sauce and calling it lunch. While I thought I made this clear in the body of my post, a few readers seemed confused, so let me reiterate: the chips and nacho sauce in the photo were not offered to kids on the lunch line, but were instead purchased separately by the child from the district’s “a la carte” menu and mixed together by him/her at the table.

What do you mean by “a la carte” foods?

A la carte foods are items sold by the district entirely apart from (and in actual competition with) the federally subsidized school meal as a money-making venture. HISD Food Services has voluntarily adopted for its a la carte foods the nutritional standards imposed on schools meeting the Healthier U.S. Schools Challenge. Under these guidelines, items like the Baked Flaming Hot Cheetos in the photo are acceptable.

So, if HISD is already meeting nutritional standards, what’s your problem?

Well, first let’s take a closer look at some of these a la carte foods. In addition to the Baked Flaming Hot Cheetos, our district also makes available to our kids items like Froot Loops, Corn Pops, Rice Krispies treats, chili cheese dogs, fried chicken sandwiches, pizza slices, beef taco nachos, Frito pie, four varieties of Doritos, quarter pound cheeseburgers, and sliders. To meet the aforementioned nutritional guidelines, these foods generally have to be doctored in some way, like baking the Cheetos and Doritos instead of frying them or reducing portion size. But while these foods might be “less bad” for you, you’d be hard-pressed to find a dietician or health professional who would recommend them as a regular part of a growing child’s diet.

More important, however, is the fact that the vast majority of HISD students are unaware of these nutritional modifications; to our children, there’s little difference between HISD’s beef taco nachos (which, I believe, use reduced-fat cheese and baked chips) and the beef taco nachos they get off campus (except for the fact that the latter may taste better). The result? Our schools are implicitly telling kids that it’s perfectly okay to eat these sorts of “carnival foods” every single day — even in an era in which one in three children are already overweight or obese — and many of our students are doing just that.

But nutritional considerations are not my only objection to our a la carte food. Here are a few more issues to consider, topics I hope to discuss in more detail in future Spork Report posts:

-Having an extensive a la carte menu like HISD’s undermines participation in the federal school meal program, a program in which taxpayers invested almost $11 billion last year and which, statistically, provides kids with even better nutrition than lunches packed from home.

-Selling a la carte items like burgers and pizza creates an economic incentive to offer the same types of foods on the federally reimbursable menu. HISD’s high school menu offers a monotonous array of pizza, burgers, and mostly fried-item sandwiches, day after day after day.

-Parents often have little or no oversight over their children’s a la carte purchases and, indeed, many are shocked when they visit a school cafeteria and see the foods being made available to their children.

-The sale of a la carte foods like the ones described above conflicts markedly with any nutrition education our children may receive as part of the school curriculum. The school talks the talk in the classroom but walks an entirely different walk in the cafeteria.

-Finally, and perhaps most importantly, offering two separate options for school food – the federal school meal program and an a la carte menu – has been shown to create painful stigma among kids who must, for financial reasons, rely on the school meal. Indeed, it’s well documented that some of these children will choose to go hungry rather than be seen buying the “uncool” federal meal. In a district like ours, in which over 80% of our students qualify for free or reduced price lunch, this is a matter of real concern.

So, is there any alternative to selling a la carte foods?

Yes. Some districts (and some states) have simply done away with a la carte altogether. San Francisco USD (which offers no a la carte food in its cafeterias) imposes a “no empty calories” standard to food sold in vending machines, so that “slightly less bad for you” junk food like the Baked Flaming Hot Cheetos simply can’t be sold.

There may well be a negative financial impact to discontinuing the sale of a la carte junk foods. In SFUSD, for example, the school board has in the past contributed funds to cover a food services shortfall; in an era of steep budget cuts, that’s a hard pill to swallow. But to turn the question around, we have to ask ourselves: is it ever okay to raise revenue at the expense of our children’s health?

In the end, what is HISD’s “food philosophy?

Ultimately, the issue of a la carte touches on the larger philosophical question of how we want to feed the children in our district,* both in the a la carte line and in the reimbursable meal line. Are we content to continue to offer the “doctored junk foods” that are popular with kids but which may contribute to obesity now — and which seem very likely to engender lifelong poor eating habits?

HISD Food Services, in recently adopting a mission statement proclaiming its desire to become “a leader in child nutrition and wellness by providing the highest level of nutrition possible on our campuses,” seems to want to do better. And at the elementary level (where much less a la carte food is sold), we’re already seeing promising movement in the right direction, including more whole grain offerings, more fresh fruit, the introduction of salad bars and a more varied menu. (More on all of that to come in future Spork Report posts.)

The question is whether the district is willing to do right by our middle and high school students as well. Is it willing to greatly improve the a la carte menu — or even ditch it altogether? Are we willing to take a chance that even older students might eat something other than a burger or a slice of pizza? Or are we writing these older kids off as a lost cause?

And finally, a word to HISD Food Services

As soon as I posted the Cheetos-and-nacho-sauce photo three weeks ago, I feared I’d dealt an unfair blow to the many well-meaning, talented and committed school food professionals working in our district. Through my membership on the HISD Food Services Parent Advisory Committee, I’ve gotten to know some of these men and women over the last year and a half, and I recognize the significant hurdles they face in trying to feed over 200,000 kids a day, many from impoverished backgrounds, on a limited budget and under strict governmental regulations.

One child’s Cheetos-and-nacho-sauce lunch is hardly representative of every meal served in our district, or even the majority of HISD meals, and it was never my intent to imply otherwise. But it is my goal to reach the day when no child in HISD can call that utterly non-nutritive concoction “lunch” and be able to say that the district itself provided him or her with the means to do so.


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