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School could be out for awhile

We got the news on Thursday that HISD schools were going to be closed until March 31 due to coronavirus. (This week is spring break, so the kids got an extra day off before the start of break, then a week and a day after it.) But there’s a very real possibility that schools will remain closed well after that.

Houston schools could remain closed well beyond the end of March due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, requiring unprecedented efforts to deliver meals and educational materials to hundreds of thousands of children, several local superintendents said Friday.

One day after nearly all Houston-area districts canceled classes through at least next week, local education leaders said their staffs were crafting contingency plans under the assumption that schools will remain closed long-term. Public health experts have said the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, is expected to last months with the potential to infect millions of Americans.

“We’re planning as if we’re going to have to do school remotely for the remainder of this (school) year,” said Fort Bend ISD Superintendent Charles Dupre, whose district serves about 78,400 children.

For now, no area school districts have canceled classes past March 30, the date when Houston and Fort Bend ISDs are scheduled to return to school. Many district leaders said they plan to reassess their calendars next week, when updates about the virus are available.

However, several education officials said they expect the continued spread of COVID-19 and growing public awareness about its potentially devastating effects likely will prompt extended cancellations.

“If we’d had this discussion two days ago, I think we’d have said (school closures) would last a couple weeks, maybe to the first week of April,” said Curtis Culwell, executive director of Texas School Alliance. “I think the reality that’s beginning to sink in is, this could be longer than that.”


The Texas Department of Agriculture received a federal waiver Friday allowing districts to serve school meals off-site and to small groups, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said in a statement.

On the academic front, districts are grappling with multiple challenges in providing high-quality instruction, including lack of access to technology among lower-income and rural students, inexperience with remote learning tools, concerns about attentiveness among elementary-age children and the delivery of special education services.

The Texas Education Agency told district leaders Thursday evening that they must commit to “supporting students instructionally while at home” to avoid extending the school year.

Here’s the HISD announcement, in case you missed it. I have to say, I have no idea what to expect at this point. I don’t see any way that the overall coronavirus situation is better or noticeably under control by March 31, so I do believe schools will be closed longer than that. How much longer, and what the schools do about it, that’s the big question. This could wind up being a mostly lost year from an educational perspective, which is another scary thing to contemplate. And with all this disruption, does it make sense to proceed with STAAR testing as if nothing else were happening? State Rep. Jon Rosenthal thinks we should cancel the STAAR for this year, and I’m hard pressed to see the argument against that. How can that test mean anything in this context? Again, I have no idea what to expect. It’s going to be a super bumpy ride, and we’ll have to do it in our own spaces. Hang in there.

Sid Miller confirms that he’s a joke

Sadly, the joke’s on us.

Sid Miller

Across the U.S., officials waking up to the nation’s obesity epidemic have been moving to cut down on unhealthy food in schools.

Not in Texas.

Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller announced Thursday that schools around Texas, one of the states struggling most with childhood obesity, soon will regain the right to sell fried food and some soda to students. The move, which Miller had hinted at in recent weeks, will take effect July 1, reversing a decade of state policy.

The Republican painted the change as a shift toward freedom, stressing it would not guarantee that unhealthy food would reappear in schools, but would “return local control to school districts, where families and community leaders are in the best position to make decisions about what works for the children they serve.”

The news was buried at the bottom of a press announcement focused on a separate plan aimed at combating childhood obesity. That plan will increase health education and facilitate connections between farmers and school officials, Miller said.

As they say, you can’t make this stuff up. Personally, I think Miller should lead by example here and pledge to eat deep fat fried foods three meals a day, washed down with a gallon or two of Mountain Dew. That’ll show people what we mean when we talk about “freedom” here in Texas, and by “we” I mean “Sid Miller”. There’s probably a reality show in that idea, if he plays his cards right. Who’s with me on this? The Lunch Tray has more.

On selling junk food in Texas schools

Every session, there’s at least one bill that gets passed with little to no notice that has completely unforeseen effects. The Lunch Tray breaks a story about one such bill from this past regular session, which has to do with the sale of junk food in Texas schools.

When it comes to the sale of junk food on campus, high schools tend to be the biggest offenders. Here in Houston ISD, for example, high school students, PTOs and coaches often set up fundraising tables at lunch to sell entrees from local restaurants and fast food chains, everything from pizza to Chinese food, creating veritable “food courts” of junk food.  Students often prefer to buy these items rather than eat in overcrowded cafeterias or go off campus, and the fundraisers are so lucrative that some principals not only turn a blind eye to them, they are rarely deterred even when TDA fines the school for a violation.

Last spring, though, [Texas Department of Agriculture] got serious and imposed fines totaling $73,000 on eight Houston high schools for illegal competitive food sales.*  Those eye-popping fines made headlines and local TV news, and apparently motivated someone to head up to the state house in Austin to successfully lobby on the issue.

Alluding to the recent TDA fines imposed in Houston, Republican House Representative Ken King introduced in the last legislative session HB1781 which “ensure[s] that Texas high schools have the freedom” to continue junk food fundraisers and which expressly forbids the TDA from fining those schools based on the food’s nutritional content.  Six Republican and two Democratic representatives joined King in co-sponsoring the bill, which ultimately passed and was signed into law by Governor Rick Perry on June 14th.  The law is now in effect statewide.

So while the nation as whole is moving forward on issues relating to childhood obesity and poor nutrition, Texas has taken a big leap backward in protecting fundraising that directly and adversely impacts student health.  That development is disheartening enough, but here’s where it gets really messy.

Whoever drafted HB1781 decided to use some legislative shorthand to describe the types of foods that high schools may continue to sell.  But instead of referring back to the state regulations the bill is trying to thwart, HB1781 instead allows Texas high schools to sell “foods of minimal nutritional value” (FMNV), as that term is defined by federal law.

The federal definition of FMNV harks back to the 1970s when there were virtually no rules regarding competitive food and the government was trying to keep the “worst of the worst” out of school cafeterias during meal times.  FMNV is defined generally as foods providing less than 5% of the daily value of certain nutrients and specifically as: sodas and other carbonated beverages; water ices; chewing gum; and certain types of candy — hard candy, jellies and gums, marshmallows, fondants, licorice, spun candy and candy-coated popcorn.

So while the Texas legislature was trying to allow high schools to sell fast food entrees at lunch, its sloppy drafting has inadvertently limited high schools to selling only a few foods – basically soda and candy – identified by the federal government over forty years ago as the least healthy for our children.

As TLT notes, when new federal regulations go into effect for the 2014-2015 school year, Texas will be in violation of them. Will Greg Abbott and/or one of the Abbott wannabees sue the federal government to defend Texas’ precious right to let its public schools sell Royal Crown and Moon Pies in school cafeterias? I’ll be honest, I’m kind of rooting for them to do so, just because I think the briefs would be hilarious. Be that as it may, I will point out that HB 1781 passed the House unanimously on the Local and Consent calendar, meaning that it was a bill that was fast-tracked for passage on the grounds that there was basically no opposition to it. What that says to me is that the contents and effect of the bill where not well understood. The TDA may be able to do some things with the implementation of this bill to mitigate its effects, but ultimately it will take an act of the next Legislature to fix this. Hopefully now that this issue has been raised, it can be dealt with.

Well, at least they’ll be able to burn off the calories

News item number one.

My kids love tapioca

Papa John’s pizza, Blue Bell ice cream, and fluorescent-colored Slushies.

For some kids, those may be the ingredients of a perfect school lunch. But for at least one Houston school district trustee, they may be the makings for a food fight.

At a board meeting Monday, trustee Juliet Stipeche questioned the district’s request to spend as much as $3 million on pizza, ice cream, chips and juices.

“This really bothers me that so much money is going to things that are not healthy,” Stipeche said Tuesday. “We should be offering something that is healthier than ice cream.”

The district has proposed spending up to $750,000 on Blue Bell ice cream, up to $960,000 on Papa John’s pizza, and up to $800,000 on beverages from Sunny Sky Products, which supplies juices and Slushie-type drinks.

With childhood obesity affecting about 17 percent of the country’s children, Stipeche said she worries that the district is sending the wrong message.

“Is it wise to promote children to eat unhealthy food?” asked Stipeche. “I’m not someone who’s just being picky about pizza and ice cream. This is a health crisis and something we need to show leadership on.”

News item number two.

Advocates of free play on the school yard won an endorsement Thursday when the HISD Board unanimously adopted a resolution recommending daily recess in addition to physical education classes for all elementary students.

Though the measure doesn’t guarantee unstructured play on campus, supporters say the policy brings the youngest pupils closer to an opportunity every school day to blow off steam on their own terms.

“I think it is a great step in the right direction,” said Chrysi Polydoros, a member of the district’s school health advisory council – which made the recess proposal – and the mother of four HISD students. “They need to get their sillies out so that they can go refocus in the classroom. They are kids and we have them in schools like little business professionals. They need a little extra bit of free time to get themselves ready to go back in and do more hard work.”

I pretty much said all I have to say in the title of this post. Gotta take your silver linings where you can find them.

New school food coming

No more mystery meat.

School lunches, long saddled with an unhealthy reputation, are getting a makeover.

Instead of salt-doused fried foods, highly processed white bread and sugar-laden desserts, cafeteria trays will be carrying whole wheat pizza, leafy green and orange vegetables and fresh fruit.

The changes, announced Wednesday by first lady Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, mark the first major nutritional adjustment to the $11 billion school meal program in 15 years.

Under the new guidelines, which were directed by the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, schools must limit calories, trans fat and sodium, while serving students a wider variety of fruit, vegetables and whole grains.


The new rules, which will affect 32 million children, will be phased in over the next three years.

Many Houston-area school districts have already taken steps to raise nutritional standards, instituting changes that mirror many of the new USDA requirements.

In Houston ISD, for example, all milk is fat-free or low-fat, and more than half of grains served are whole grain, including pasta, sliced bread, homemade rolls, pizza crust and brownies.

Meals contain no trans fat, and dark green and orange vegetables are served three times a week, said district spokesman Jason Spencer.

Clear Creek, Spring and Alief are among the other local school districts that have also made the switch to all whole-grain items, fat-free or low-fat milk and more dark green and orange vegetables.

Olivia has been asking to get the school lunch more often as of late. I think that’s more because it’s what her friends do than anything else, but that’s okay. I suspect she won’t have any problems with the change, but as The Lunch Tray wrote last month, there can be quite a few bumps in the road in getting better food to school kids. Don’t be surprised if there are problems here and there. If you don’t mind a little profanity, there’s an interesting perspective on the issue of better-quality food and why it isn’t always embraced here. This is a process, one that will likely take some time to show results. Here’s more from The Lunch Tray and Obamafoodorama, and The Spork Report has some related food news from HISD.

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.


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.

What do they have against food?

The Lunch Tray is peeved.

The Associated Press reports that late Tuesday, the House Appropriations Committee approved an agriculture appropriations bill which would essentially gut all of the recent, hard-won legislative victories to improve the health of Americans, especially children.

Remember how hard it was to get the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act passed, the law that will for the first time in fifteen years meaningfully improve the nutritional quality of school food? Sorry, says the House GOP. Too costly to implement, not to mention that Representatives from potato-growing states aren’t pleased with the fact that french fries and tater tots can no longer stand in as the daily vegetable on school lunch trays.

There’s a lot more, so go take a look. I’m afraid it’s just another day at the office for the Republicans in Congress. Kos has more.

The state of school food

Bettina has a feature story in Houston Family magazine about the current state of school food, which takes into account recently passed legislation by Congress and what’s going on in HISD. She also has a report from an HISD “Nutrition Strategy Event” that was an attempt to “define a clear direction and priorities for Houston ISD Food Services and its partners”, and a report on the USDA’s new school food regulations. If you have kids in public school as I do, these will be of interest to you.

“Lunch Line”

Want to understand the history of the school lunch program and what’s going on with it today? Then you’ll want to see the documentary “Lunch Line”, for which The Lunch Tray is, fittingly enough, a sponsor:

Here’s a trailer of the film and a recent review from The Atlantic Monthly. The film makers, Uji Films, give this synopsis:

Lunch Line reframes the school lunch debate through an examination of the program’s surprising past, uncertain present, and possible future. In the film, six kids from one of the toughest neighborhoods in Chicago set out to fix school lunch and end up at the White House. Their unlikely journey parallels the dramatic transformation of school lunch from a weak patchwork of local anti-hunger efforts to a robust national feeding program. The film tracks key moments in school food and child nutrition from 1940s, 1960s, and 1980s to the present – revealing political twists, surprising alliances, and more common ground than people realize.

The event will be held at The Health Museum and will begin at 6:30pm with a reception featuring local and organic refreshments. Immediately following the screening of the film, I’ll be introducing a panel discussion featuring the film makers along with celebrity chef Monica Pope (Bravo Top Chef Masters and a Food & Wine Best New Chef); Recipe for Success‘s Director of Operations, chef Molly Graham; and Brian Giles, General Manager of Houston ISD/Aramark Food Services. Lisa Brooks, a writer, teacher and public school parent, will moderate.

Admission and parking are free. You just have to be one of the first people to RSVP to secure a seat in the theater. For more information and to RSVP, click here.

The screening is this Thursday, October 28, with the film itself beginning at 7 PM. Enjoy!

Donating unused school food

If you spend any time in a public school cafeteria, you will see a lot of food getting thrown out. Much of it is stuff that has to be thrown out, of course, such as all cooked food. But that leaves quite a bit, things like untouched fresh fruit and individually-wrapped items like crackers. One might wonder, why can’t the school donate that food to charity? Especially in tough economic times like this, that sure seems like the right thing to do. If you ask your school district, however, you will be told it’s not possible for a variety of reasons. Bettina Siegel decided to do some digging into those reasons, and it turns out that maybe the school districts have it wrong. Go see what she has to say, and if you agree with her conclusions, consider contacting your local school board trustee and telling them you’d like to see an unused food donation policy adopted.

Still more on the new school lunches

Bettina Elias Siegel, the lady behind The Lunch Tray, gets her op-ed on HISD’s healthier lunch choices published in the Chron.

One critical piece of the puzzle is student food education. But HISD now has only about 15 dietetic interns to go into schools and talk up the new items – far fewer than needed to reach every student in our district’s almost 300 schools. Even Houston’s Recipe for Success, which gives kids hands-on experience in growing and cooking fresh vegetables, can’t do the entire job. My suggestion is to turn to the parent volunteers who are already staffing most HISD lunch rooms to monitor behavior, assist with hard-to-open lunch items, and provide a friendly face. Why not enlist this ready-made set of volunteers to act as “new food boosters” – explaining the new foods and encouraging tasting using “I Tried It” stickers, praise and simple enthusiasm?

Second, no parent would offer their own child the choice of an unfamiliar food versus pizza and expect the child to pass up the pizza. Similarly, HISD must take care not to introduce new entrees like chicken-and-brown-rice soup on the same day that burgers, nuggets or other “kid food” is served. To do so would ensure that the new entrees will be deemed a flop, and perhaps risk having them removed from the district’s menu altogether.

Finally, we need to be realists. While many kids will eat vegetables standing alone, many more will not. Other school districts have been creative by incorporating vegetables into more sophisticated main dishes like soups, stews, sauces, pasta dishes and stir fries. But while HISD has laudably followed the recommendations of the PAC to start developing similar entrees (including wraps, rice bowls, stir fries and curries), the district has also indicated that for financial reasons such new foods might only be available on the “a la carte” line – that is, to paying students only. Because almost 80 percent of HISD students qualify for free and reduced lunch, this would create an inequitable system of “haves” and “have nots” where only students with money in their pockets can access the new, more healthful items.

Getting kids to try new foods is definitely a challenge, and it’s going to take time, patience, and a lot of outside-the-box thinking to make this happen and be successful. But the payoff is worth it.

More on the new school lunches

The Chron published a Sunday story about the changes to school lunches that we can expect this year.

Among the items debuting on Houston-area school lunch menus this academic year: yams, Brussels sprouts, acorn squash, edamame and bok choy.

Sushi, Cuban pork tacos and spinach salads also will be served up as some area school districts try to meet increasing pressure to offer more nutritious school lunches.

Old favorites, such as chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese, remain on most menus but have been overhauled to be healthier. Houston ISD, the state’s largest school system, lowered sodium in elementary lunches by an average of 70 milligrams this year. They’ve added almost a gram of fiber to the average school lunch and decreased fat by more than 70 percent in some entrees by switching from beef to ground turkey.

“The focus for the entire summer has really been on the menu and the improvement of the menu,” said Brian Giles, who oversees food services for HISD.


But with tougher national standards expected to be introduced soon, school districts are pre-emptively overhauling their meals. The challenge: persuading youngsters to try new foods without increasing costs.

Schools receive up to $2.72 federal reimbursement for a lunch served to a child from a low-income family.

They hope funding will be increased to cover the cost of more fresh, locally grown items.

“Whole grains cost more. Fresh vegetables cost more – both the product itself and the labor to prepare it,” said Melanie Konarik, director of child nutrition for Spring ISD.

Yes, these things always come down to money, don’t they? It’s much cheaper to eat bad food than to eat healthy food. At least, until you start feeling the effects of all that unhealthy eating. It would help if those who allocate money for school lunches, especially those who claim to be deeply concerned about deficits and long-term spending trends, would take this sort of penny wisdom into account. Nice thought, isn’t it? For more details, I refer you back to The Lunch Tray, whose author Bettina Siegel was quoted in the story.

What your kids have to look forward to in the cafeteria this year

Today is the first day of school for HISD and other districts around the state. Among other things, this means a whole bunch of kids will be eating school food at least some of the time again. For HISD at least, there will be some significant changes in the offerings, as a result of some good old-fashioned parental agitation. The Lunch Tray, whose author was and is one of those parental agitators, gives a report on what to expect in HISD’s cafeterias this year. There’s a lot of good news, some not so good news, and a feeling of progress mixed with the realization there’s still a long way to go. Check it out.