Sampling the Goods (and the Bads) at the HISD School Lunch Food Show

Yesterday afternoon HISD held the School Lunch Food Show in the cafeteria of Jefferson Davis High School. Parents, teachers, students and the media were given the opportunity to voice their opinions on more than 80 new, healthier menu items -- with reduced levels of sodium, fat and sugar, and no trans fats or high fructose corn syrup, due to new federal standards for nutrition in schools -- in consideration for the 2011-2012 school year. I can't remember the last time I was so full. A few of the good, the bad, and the baffling selections featured below:

The Good:

  • Cheese Flatbread Pizza - I used to love the rectangular sheets of pizza they served at my elementary school (AISD). But this was so much better. The flatbread gave the pizza a nice texture, and the cheese nicely melted over an ample supply of tomato sauce.
  • Southwestern Veggie Quesadilla - These were surprisingly flavorful despite the plasticine appearance of the cheese
  • Tamale Pockets (Chicken Chorizo and Bean, Cheese & Salsa Verde varieties) - A modern take on the old rock-hard lunch line burrito, the Tamale Pockets featured a softer shell and interesting, tasty fillings.
  • Tomato Soup - Methinks I even spied a flake or two of basil floating around in there! Very nice flavor.
  • Vegetarian Chili Mix - Yes, people. It had beans. And it was delicious.

The Bad:

  • Blueberry Muffin - The sparsely flecked muffin disc had a disconcertingly strong chemical aftertaste. Perhaps those weren't real blueberries.
  • Breakfast Bites - The dusty toast-shaped cookies had the consistency of dry dog food.
  • Chalupa - the "meat," cooked to a sawdust-like consistency, was secured to a tortilla chip by a few waxy bits of cheese.
  • Tangerine Chicken - Looked delicious, but in reality consisted largely of bland, soggy batter drizzled in a bitter orange sauce.
  • Vegetarian Chowmein / Vegetarian Fried Rice - Again, both of these items looked delicious but proved disappointing due to a flavorless, gluey consistency and lack of advertised vegetable accompaniment.

The Mysterious:

  • Buffalo Bites - An eggroll shell filled with (very mild) buffalo wing sauce, chicken, and some sort of vegetable filler (Lettuce? Bok Choy?). Reminded me of something you'd find at a bar or tailgate party.
  • Chef Maxwell's Flavored Lentil Chips (available in both pizza and cheddar flavors) - Chips is the wrong word to describe this product, which is somewhere between a rice cake and a Cheeto. Still, they definitely grew on me. The cheddar flavor was coated in a neon orange dust; the pizza sprinkled with Italian herb seasoning.
  • Veggie Patty - Reminded me of "garden vegetable" flavored crackers. The item was strange, but not altogether unpleasant.

According to Brian Giles, General Manager of HISD Food Services, the district has been operating ahead of the trend for several years now. Carbonated beverages were removed over a year ago, and vegetarian items are available on a daily basis at all campuses. In 2009 HISD opened a centralized food production facility ultimately preparing an estimated 220,000 meals a day. Giles said in a statement, "We make recipes from scratch. So in terms of preservatives, sodium -- all of those bad things you don't want in your system - we now can eliminate them."

Why is this so important? More than 70 percent of students enrolled in HISD's breakfast and lunch program eat for free or at a reduced rate due to economic hardship. For many, the meals they eat at school are their primary source of nutrition for the better part of the year. In addition, districts opting for healthier food options are seeing improved scores on standardized tests. Definitely food for thought.

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Lauren Marmaduke
Contact: Lauren Marmaduke