Most residents would be shocked to learn that one-third of all students in Humble ISD qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Our area seems relatively affluent. But there are far more who depend on free or reduced meals than most would imagine.

A recent story in The Washington Post told the tale of elementary school lunchroom staffer Stacey Koltiska, who resigned after not being allowed to serve a hot meal to a visibly hungry young student with no funds in his account. A new policy from Pennsylvania’s Canon-McMillan school district prevents cafeteria workers from serving a hot meal to students who owe more than $25. Koltiska had a moral issue with the new policy, and rather than enforce it, she submitted her resignation.

“If the student does not have the proper account balance, they are served a sandwich of two bread slices and a cold slice of 'government cheese,'” Koltiska said. The hot lunch is actually thrown away rather than being served to the student, but parents are still charged the full meal price ($2.05). Matthew Daniels, the district's superintendent, stated that the policy has reduced the number of parents who don’t attend to their students' lunch account balances. He stated that the district was owed $100,000 from these delinquent accounts, and that has been reduced to $20,000 since the new policy began. He also said that the policy does not target students who qualify for reduced-price or free meals, nor was it intended to embarrass or shame any child.

Nearly 14,000 Humble ISD students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, and all students who apply for the benefits utilize them. Furthermore, students are always served meals regardless of their account balance. All students are allowed to purchase school meals until their account is $20 in debt; once the student owes more than $20, the student receives an alternate breakfast and/or lunch at no cost. The alternate breakfast meal consists of milk, fruit and graham crackers; a turkey and cheese sandwich, fruit and milk is provided for lunch. Campus cafeteria managers monitor the outlay of alternative meals, and when a student has received an alternate meal three days in a row, the district is notified by the manager and Child Nutrition Services personnel reach out to the parents to inquire with the family. If the family is not currently enrolled in the free/reduced meal program, they are asked at this time whether they’d like to complete an application for free or reduced-priced meals.

The district uses School Messenger emails to notify parents/ guardians when their child’s account is exhausted, and SchoolCafe, a new online meal payment system, provides an option to receive low/negative balance email alerts. When students are actually purchasing their meal, all students enter their school ID, so it is not visible to others whether they have money in the account or whether they qualify for free meals.

Humble ISD cafeterias serve six million meals during the school year. On a daily basis, approximately 6,000 breakfast meals and nearly 20,000 lunch meals are served; in addition several thousand a la carte items are also served. The Humble ISD cafeterias have an annual operating budget of $7.6 million and are self-funded, meaning that all costs are covered by federal or state funding and revenues from meal prices. No money is taken from local property taxes so that district funds are preserved for classroom use. The Child Nutrition Services Department has over 350 employees and is one of the largest district support services. The department operates under the National School Breakfast/Lunch Program administered by the federal United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and by the state Texas Department of Agriculture.

A wide variety of meals are served, and all include a meat, fruit, vegetables, grains and milk, but do kids and parents like the choices? Parents and kids, as one might imagine, had a wide variety of responses.

The Brown family (5th grader Aubrey, 2nd grader Nathan, and kindergartner Jack) attend Greentree Elementary and say the lunch ladies are really nice and the food isreally yummy. Jack's favorite is chicken nuggets, Nathan likes the cheeseburgers, and while Aubrey usually takes her lunch, when she does eat in the cafeteria, her favorite is beef nachos. Stacey Black said, my elementary child likes to eat breakfast at school. We actually call it second breakfast. Black said her child never eats lunch at school, however, because of the lack of choices.

Parents like Kat Carv are concerned about the early lunchtimes for some elementary schools. While the district explains that serving times vary by campus, Carv’s kindergartener Hunter eats lunch at 10:05 a.m. and only gets a 30-minute lunch (the time includes walking to and from).

“He really likes the brownies and pizza, but eating lunch at 10 a.m. is just crazy to me!” said Carv, who referenced a recent New York Daily News article citing concerns about kids losing energy throughout the day when they eat lunch so early.

Parent Kathleen Jordan said, "I would like to see salad bars in all of our schools." Janet Miller-Hollis agrees.

"I am tired of hearing my son had chicken nuggets or cheese sticks for lunch," said Miller-Hollis.

Yet parent Beth Spears disagrees. "Salad bars are notorious for germ contamination, and I don't want my kids exposed to that," said Spears. Miller-Hollis says she would also like to see bottled water offered with the meals instead of having to pay extra for the bottled water option.

One parent mentioned that if kids don't choose all of the full meal options (meat, bread, vegetable and fruit), then they are charged a la carte prices rather than the meal price, and suggested that the lunch ladies do a better job explaining this to the kids.

Despite as many as 16 lunch lines at some high schools, the arduous wait in line remains an issue for many students.

Debora Brabson said, "My son has had the same $50 in his account for over three years because if he stands in line to buy lunch, he doesn't have time to eat." Jennifer Stuart-Puryear says that her highschoolers say the same thing―there is no time. KHS freshman Colin Waguespack also agrees, and usually takes his lunch and eats with friends in a smaller hallway to avoid the noise and big crowds. Kingwood High School has a One Lunch program that allows kids to eat in areas other than the cafeteria, a concept Beth Spear calls brilliant, because it gives kids more time to eat and connect with others. Portion sizes are also too small, according to parents such as Jennifer Pinon, who says that her active boys have always paid extra to get enough food for lunch.

Many parents commented on concerns and lack of nutrition in the processed chicken, boxed mashed potatoes and canned vegetables and fruit.

Other parents were concerned about waste, but the district does not weigh or measure food discarded by students.

Parent Paula Nielsen said that all of these parent sentiments are understandable, but suggests parents volunteer in their local cafeteria to get the other perspective.

KHS junior Sarah Scheper thinks the service in the cafeteria is quick and easy. It took her five minutes to wait in line. Photo by Jack Hyler

Parent Kellie Jones said that in her opinion, the "deregulation of school cafeterias" is a real concern.

"They have to make a profit to stay in business. It's cheaper and they have fewer employees now than when we all went to school," Jones said. The cafeterias say they serve fast food item" to learn more about the deregulation that occurred during the Reagan administration.

Child Nutrition Director Shirley Parker said, “My department does not operate vending machines, but some schools do have vending machines and must follow the USDA Smart Snacks in School guidelines. Choices like bottled water and 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice are available, and high schools can offer diet soda.” The USDA Smart Snacks program also allows food vendors like Chick-Fil-A to sell food items like smart snack sliders in some middle schools and high schools. For special occasions like birthdays, parents are encouraged to bring in non-food party favors. There are regulations in place to protect students with food allergies to items such as tree nuts and gluten, and parents can check with their particular school regarding food that can be brought in.

Humble ISD is required to have periodic administrative reviews, and in January 2016, the Texas Department of Agriculture visited six campuses during meal preparation and serving. Food quality, sanitation, staff training, adherence to USDA guidelines, and practices and procedures were evaluated, with Humble ISD receiving an excellent rating and kudos for their clean and colorful cafeterias, appealing food and wonderful staff.

Not everyone thinks the situation is good. The amount of processed food in school cafeterias is a particular sore point for local chef David Welch.

As a chef, it makes my blood boil. I am passionate about this issue but see very little will on the part of anyone in the administration to fix it. The issue of liability and political correctness, like potentially being sued for 'Taco Day' because it's discriminatory, has taken literally all the fun and incentive out of producing fresh, high-quality and high-nutrition food for our kids. In my opinion, school lunch seems to be an afterthought, if not a nuisance to the district. It is not hard to cook great, fresh, unprocessed, healthy food for our kids. We just have to have the will to do it," said Welch.

 

 

Jacqueline Havelka
Author: Jacqueline HavelkaEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
I am a rocket scientist turned writer. I worked at Lockheed Martin-Johnson Space Center for many years managing experiments on the Space Station and Shuttle, and I now own my own firm, Inform Scientific, specializing in technical and medical writing and research program management. I am a contributing correspondent to The Tribune, a Kingwood resident for 12 years, and proud mom to two Aggie sons.