Be Informed!

The First Class Breakfast Program is being implemented in schools all over Houston. I am a very involved parent, but I have only one experience to share and one point of view. In an effort to share information and inform parents, I welcome comments and guest posts!

Forward this to all who might be interested. You need to be informed and aware of what is happening in your schools.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Breakfast Service at Roberts Elementary

I saw that you're soliciting feedback about the First Class Breakfast program so I wanted to write and let you know what's happening at Roberts Elementary, which rolled out the program yesterday.

By way of introduction, I have two children at Roberts and am a member of the newly formed HISD Food Services Parent Advisory Committee (PAC). Let me say up front that I'm not an apologist for what I consider the often sub-par food served by HISD/Aramark in the breakfast - and lunch - program. Like many of the parents reading your blog, I take nutrition very seriously in my own home and I'm committed to improving our food as much as possible. I've devoted much of my time in the last two months to educating myself so that I can be the best advocate possible for concerned parents like yourselves. Like you, I want to see more fresh food in our schools, less processed and high sodium/sugar food, and fewer "junk food" entrees like Frito Pie, hamburgers and pizza (regardless of whether these have more whole grain or lower fat cheese than they used to, I still object to teaching children, as we currently are, that these are good daily lunch options, rather than foods that should be regarded as special indulgences in an otherwise healthy diet). We can and must do better for our children, especially those in the most vulnerable populations who are dependent on HISD for one or two meals a day.

That said, since joining the PAC I've gotten a lot of information that I didn't have before, both from HISD and from an unbiased and comprehensive book on the school lunch/breakfast program which I recommend to any parent who's interested in understanding and improving our school food program - "Free for All" by Janet Poppendieck.

Many parents don't realize that, according to HISD, a whopping 83% of children in HISD qualify for free/reduced lunch. 83% !! While that figure may not represent your own school, all HISD schools, even the affluent ones, do have some portion of the population that needs - or simply wants - free breakfast. If Dr. Grier is insistent on doing it in the classroom -- and at the moment I don't see any schools being allowed to opt out, no matter how vocally they complain - then I'm willing to work within the system to make the program as efficient and nutritious as possible. I'm sure none of us want to see even one child at our schools go hungry and if we are forced to serve breakfast from carts, we want the best food possible (more on that below).

HISD claimed that it would be flexible in working with each school and I must say, that has proven true at Roberts. Our principal, Rita Graves, has been very creative in trying to balance the needs of children who need breakfast, the concerns of the many parents who don't want their children to eat the breakfast, and the need to preserve instructional time. She came up with a hybrid system of service in the cafeteria and carts placed in our hallways that, at least based on two days' experience, has worked remarkably well. Here's what we've been doing:

At 7:35 two carts begin service in our cafeteria. The vast majority of kids who previously ate breakfast there still do so. Service there continues until about 7:50 so that kids eating there can finish up and be in their classrooms by our 8:00 bell. Meanwhile, several carts are strategically placed in the school hallways while two tables, staffed by adults and with a second set of breakfast cards, are set up at the far ends of the school. About 2-3 minutes before our first bell at 7:55, any kids who haven't eaten in the cafeteria and who want to eat breakfast are allowed into the school. These children go to their assigned table, get their card, and go to the cart closest to their classroom to pick up their food. Based on my personal observation over the last two days, these children are done, or almost done eating, before our morning announcements are even over. As far as I've been able to see, there has been no detraction from instructional time.

Some parents have worried that their children will want to eat when they see other children eating. While that may be happening at Roberts, I have to say I've so far only heard of the opposite - some kids who'd wanted to eat breakfast but were forbidden by their parents took a look at it on the first day and weren't eager to try it after that! But again, I certainly can't speak for the reaction of all kids.

As for the food, I agree with most parents that we have a long way to go to improve the offerings both at lunch and in the breakfast program.

First, I and many others feel that the addition of animal and graham crackers to the breakfast is abysmal and must end. HISD has told us that the use of these foods is a short term measure undertaken to comply with nutritional guidelines set by the USDA that require a certain number of nutrients such as iron and calories per week. From "Free for All" I've learned that this is not an uncommon practice at schools that are trying to meet the high USDA caloric requirements (which were set in the 40's when the issue was hunger, not obesity) while not tipping over the guidelines on fat content. However, on a tour of the HISD kitchens yesterday, a representative from HISD told us that they are going to phase these items out as soon as possible by, for example, adding an iron-rich food at lunch. HISD also claims that this program was ordered by Dr. Grier with little notice and that they have every intention of improving the offerings over time, with a reduction of the processed items like the horrible "Uncrustable" grilled cheese sandwiches(with 50 ingredients!).

In general, HISD/Aramark has been telling the PAC that it's taken them the last year or two to move from on-site cooking at individual schools to serving all HISD schools from their new central kitchen, and that they now hope to move from processed food to more scratch cooking. I personally am willing to give HISD/Aramark the benefit of the doubt for one year -- due to their procurement and menu planning system, I've reluctantly accepted that change cannot happen overnight -- but if we're not seeing a significant improvement in the quality of the offerings both at breakfast and lunch at that time, then I believe that concerned parents must raise their voices and use their considerable political clout to improve the situation.

I hope this information is helpful. I feel passionately about the school food issue and am happy to share more information with any of you. I may be reached at


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