The Houston Independent School District is shaking things up in the kitchen with changes to its breakfast and lunch program. Sodium-free seasoning and more ethnically diverse choices, as well as fresh fruit and vegetable options, are part of the new perspective on the menu. It's a big improvement over the days of boring burgers, bland chicken nuggets with a handful of limp french fries and the quintessential rectangular pizza Fridays.
Over the past few months, HISD's Nutrition Services Team, comprised of dietitians and chefs, has been meeting with focus groups to discuss how to make school breakfasts and lunches better for students. Staff, parents, elementary, middle school and high school kids have all been part of the process. The result is 30 new meals that will cycle throughout the year at all HISD campuses starting on September 12.
David Husbands is the executive chef at the HISD Nutrition Services Production Center in Houston and leads a relatively small team of nine, most of whom are stationed daily at the production facility. Husbands says he is excited about the menu they've developed because "getting feedback from the people in the field and testing recipes with students and faculty has helped us to understand what kinds of foods they want to eat."
It's not just about taste. Maintaining the balance of sugars, protein, sodium and carbohydrates in school meals while not compromising taste for over 210,000 students is a herculean task. The chefs work hand-in-hand with health experts to maintain nutritional goals. Nan Cramer, one of seven registered dietitians with HISD, said that over the course of their research, they discovered that school breakfasts sometimes lacked protein. "The overwhelming sentiment is that our breakfasts need to offer more meat and fresh [options]," she said. New items include Southwestern Breakfast Toast—a hearty piece of Texas toast sprinkled with cheese and sausage—and Breakfast Pizza Sliders, made with chicken pepperoni.
There are also more fresh fruit and vegetables available during breakfast and lunch. According to the HISD News Blog, the school district has been awarded $1.2 million from the Texas Department of Agriculture to provide more fruits and vegetables to students. Nutrition Services Senior Operations Manager Becky Campbell says, "the grant gives school children the opportunity to taste products not regularly found on school menus."
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Both Husbands and Cramer agree that the new menu items are a reflection of the district's population. It made sense to add main entrees that children are familiar with at home or in family restaurants. Two of their most popular new items are chicken tikka masala and the chicken and blueberry waffle sandwich. Husbands admits that, "we have to be creative with some of the spices we can use." For instance, when asked about the ingredients in the tikka masala sauce, he mentions that some Indian spices are harder to come by. Substituting cumin for garam masala (a unique combination of common Indian spices) is completely acceptable, but he hopes to get new spices on the rack soon. At a press event, we had the opportunity to try the tikka masala and found it full-flavored with bell peppers, onions, as well as the cumin.
The most intriguing addition to the school lunchroom this fall is the "flavor station." Students get to apply sodium-free spice mixes themselves, which improves the dining experience and makes it more interesting. The spices include the "Houston Blend," chili pepper, and "Italian Garlic." Shakers of each are readily available at designated areas labeled "Flavor Station" in each cafeteria. The nutrition services team anticipates that this will be the most-loved part of eating lunch. David hopes that sriracha can be added to the station in the near future.
Breakfast is complimentary for all students on campus every school day. Families of students may purchase a breakfast or lunch for a minimal cost. Each student lunch is $2.25; reduced lunch is $ .40. Details about pricing can be found at the top of each month's school menu app that can be downloaded to view daily menus and nutrition information.
Thanks to the efforts of Husbands' and Cramer's team at the HISD Nutrition Services Center, lunch time may very well beat out recess as kids' favorite part of the school day.