Not since the days of former superintendent Billy Reagan has the Houston media had a chance to sit down in a media roundtable with the superintendent of the Houston ISD, but Tuesday morning Superintendent Terry Grier rejuvenated the discarded tradition and invited the Houston Press and others in for a talk and a typical school breakfast.
And he capped off his first monthly session with a demonstration of the best way to peel a banana (pinch it at the top and the yellow skin just rolls right off.)
Grier took the opportunity to pitch the recent expansion of the school district's free breakfast program, promising that by packing breakfast into more kids, great results will follow -- and more than just the increased federal subsidy money the district will be getting. Kids will study better, learn more, and behave better for their teachers if they have something other than growling tigers in their stomachs to get them through the day. In fact, Grier somehow worked it around that the district will be saving $2 million with its additional orders through the Aramark food service because buying in greater bulk means more discounts on the pricing.
Of course the district has touted its breakfast program before, but when Houston Press' Sarah Fenske did an on-site visit at Jefferson Davis High School in 2004, she found many of the breakfasts weren't actually eaten. And that the teacher checkoff lists, showing how much had been eaten, bore little reality to the inspected coolers returned to the cafeteria.
As representatives of Aramark looked on, Grier says all that's changed now. The district and Aramark have made the meals much more nutritional (HISD is apparently the anti-Philadelphia, which got caught handing out Krispy Kreme donuts to the kids when it instituted a breakfast program, according to Grier) and yet somehow more enticing to the kids, he says, which is really a wow and maybe the district can make some money off that selling its secret to other districts, and parents. They even had kids taste-test prospective items.
In the interests of front line duty, Hair Balls/Eating...Our Words (in dual persona form) ate the breakfast. The turkey ham (HISD has moved away from serving pork because of cultural/religious reasons for some kids, and won't the right-wing radio stations love that?) and cheese sandwich tasted enjoyably greasy, the biscuit on the fried chicken sandwich was a little dry but the chicken was great. The muffin (bran? wheat? not sure) was sweet and moist. In sum: Not bad at all.
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For a lot of kids, the only two meals they get each day are at school, Grier says, so the free breakfast and lunch program makes a huge difference in kids' lives. There had been reports that serving breakfast was just too much trouble, but they checked with schools and found that not to be the case. Free breakfasts may cut into some instructional time, but give teachers a chance to teach responsibility when they get kids to not make a mess while eating and to clean up after themselves.
"It was not the calamity of errors that people opposing the program said it was." Grier says.
Looking at a month's breakfast calendar, we saw a range of items with a lot of sausage, egg and cheese biscuits and yogurt. Also, surprisingly enough given all the emphasis on nutrition: Pop-Tarts. Now it's a "whole grain Pop-Tart," but still? To be fair, Julie Spreckelmeyer, an Aramark liaison with HISD's food service, pointed out the Pop-Tarts, saying they are on their way out.
The superintendent also talked at length about teacher evaluation standards and firing bad teachers, but we'll save that for a later Hair Balls post.