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Another reason to support local food

Bettina Elias Siegel of The Lunch Tray takes to the op-ed pages to give another reason for supporting local businesses, by changing HISD’s practices for how school lunches are provided.

Food service management companies (FSMCs) like Aramark are, above all else, for-profit entities, incentivized to cut costs wherever possible to retain valuable district contracts and yield maximum returns for their shareholders. One significant way in which FSMCs save money is by turning to giant food processors like Tyson, Pilgrim’s and ConAgra, which are paid processing fees to convert free federal commodity foods (whole chicken parts, potatoes, wheat flour, etc.) into products like fried chicken patties, French fries and frozen pizza. The resulting convenience foods allow districts to save significantly on kitchen labor, since often little more than reheating is required to prepare them.

The problem, of course, is that these highly processed foods are not served in the best interest of our students’ health. To be sure, HISD has made some laudable improvements to its menus, primarily at the elementary school level, and a handful of high schools now have a new Tex-Mex line and an attractive fresh deli line (the latter, however, is not eligible for federal reimbursement, which means the majority of HISD high school students cannot take advantage of it). But I have still witnessed firsthand many HISD school meals which consist of par-fried, monochromatic fare like fried chicken patty sandwiches, corn dogs and chicken-fried steak finger sandwiches. Pizza is available to most of our middle and high school students every single day of the school week, with burgers of one sort or another available on most days as well. And all of these foods can be supplemented (or replaced) by students with items like baked Flaming Hot Cheetos, cookies, Rice Krispies treats, cheesy, fried-chip nachos and neon-bright, artificially colored slushies, all available in the so-called “a la carte” lines (for fully paying customers) that help boost Food Services’ profits.

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Moving to more scratch-cooking in the central kitchen would certainly require HISD to pay more for labor. But school food consultant Kate Adamick, co-founder of Cook for America and author of the forthcoming Lunch Money: Serving Healthy School Food in a Sick Economy, argues that when districts stop paying processing fees to huge food manufacturers and management fees to private companies like Aramark, the labor costs of cooking free commodity foods from scratch are offset. That result may be all the more true in a district like ours, where more than 80 percent of children qualify for free or reduced-price government meals, meaning that our Food Services operation has far more federal reimbursement dollars to work with than more affluent districts.

An emphasis on scratch cooking would also keep more taxpayer dollars here in Houston. Instead of paying our current per-meal fee to Philadelphia-based Aramark, and processing fees and food purchasing dollars to the far-flung companies with which Aramark contracts, we could put that money directly into the hands of Houston-based kitchen workers and more local food suppliers. Those wages, in turn, would be spent by workers on goods, housing and services within our own city.

So before HISD either grudgingly renews Aramark’s contract despite the $2 million shortfall or simply turns the keys over to yet another FSMC like Chartwells or Sodexo, I would urge our superintendent and school board to consider commissioning a feasibility study to determine if self-operation, with a greater focus on scratch-cooking, could possibly break even.

I’d argue that coming close to breaking even would be enough to move forward on this. Better quality, supporting the local economy, and having greater control over the process, all of that would be worth paying a little more for. Let’s do that study and see what this could do for us.

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