The Politics of Food

School Lunch Redux

Last December, Eating Our Words shined a spotlight on school lunches, taking to task both funding for and quality of food in schools. While the intent of the post was to serve as a wake-up call to students, parents and schools alike, HISD took offense, citing its new food prep facility as evidence of its efforts to avert school-lunch stereotypes. In addition, last week we were notified that this morning, HISD's new Superintendent Dr. Terry Grier would lead big-wigs from the USDA's Special Nutrition Programs on a tour of the state-of-the-art food prep center. As Michelle Obama launches her official campaign against childhood obesity, might HISD serve as a model district for the nation?

We decided to take a second look.

The food prep facility was created to combat unhealthy school lunches. In years past, HISD and other districts equipped their school cafeterias with recipes and ingredients, leaving each campus on its own to create the actual dishes. Three-hundred campuses with 300 lunchrooms found 300 interpretations of recipes, meaning slapdash salt and stray sugars found their ways into pretty much every item. Nutritional value tanked despite the chefs' best intentions, and processed foods became the norm.

That's when HISD's board stepped in, mandating that more school food needed to be made from scratch. The idea for a centralized, state-of-the-art HISD food prep facility was born. And while the funding for the facility is still a little unclear, the intentions are certainly shiny: An August 2009 press release cites a "five-year strategic nutrition and wellness plan" designed to outpace both state and federal nutritional guidelines.

HISD's new food prep facility sits on 15 acres of land on the north side of town. It is 220,000 square feet of love, including bakery, cook/chill center, storage area, and distribution center. A walk through the storage facility shows pallets of whole wheat pastas and flour, packaged salads, and real, live people efficiently assembling sandwiches for the next day's breakfast. Fifty to 60 percent of all HISD food is made at the facility and delivered to campuses, while the remaining items (such as milks, breads and hamburger patties) are delivered directly to schools from the manufacturers. The district now offers free breakfast to *all* of its students, regardless of socio-economic background, and cafeterias serve an average of 20 additional lunches per campus per day when the food comes from the new facility.

All of this signifies greatness. But a peek at the HISD lunch menus shows the same old offenders: nachos, pizza, corndogs, and burgers. Where are the salads, the whole grain pastas, the baked chicken? We asked Julie Spreckelmeyer, an Aramark liaison with HISD's food service, for an explanation.

Spreckelmeyer said that each item on these menus is fully compliant with national guidelines, noting that hamburgers are served on whole wheat buns, pizzas are made with low-fat mozzarella, and corndogs are actually chicken dipped in a whole wheat crust. Salads are served once or twice a week, and that number is on the rise. Plus, she says, these are the foods that students like to eat, and "you have to increase buy-in before you can change taste buds."

Apparently, a school lunch redux is a slow process. Perhaps a push from the USDA and our esteemed First Lady is just what we need to put that plan ahead of schedule.

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Ruthie Johnson
Contact: Ruthie Johnson