Republican agriculture commissioner Sid Miller, the Texas cupcake king, has made the next move in his campaign to bring freedom of choice back to the school lunch room. After several hushed mentions of his strategy to undo the ban on deep fryers and soda machines on campus, the Department of Agriculture could be ready to make a decision on the ten-year-old policy in the next few months.
Miller’s plan—now closed for discussion so the commission can review comments—is part of a longer unraveling of previous ag commissioner Susan Combs’s healthful reforms to school lunch, which in March 2004 included banning deep-fat fryers in cafeterias that participate in the federal nutrition programs.
Todd Staples, who was ag commissioner before Miller, undid pieces of Combs’s reform—which had been lauded as one of the most comprehensive school health programs in the country. Then, after Miller famously granted cupcakes amnesty earlier this year, it seemed the remaining bans—on deep-fat fryers and soda machines—stood as the last parts of a legacy that some say made Texas a “national leader when it comes to school nutrition policy.”
According to a statement from Miller, the Agriculture Commission’s possible repeal of the fat-fryer ban is not necessarily an aim to put greasy food back in the hands of the state’s K–12 students. From the Wall Street Journal:
Mr. Miller, a Republican, believes the current school-nutrition regulations unduly hamper local school districts.
“It’s about giving back local control and allowing each school district to make the best decision for their community,” he said in a statement. “It’s not about french fries, it’s about freedom.”
So for Miller, the government ends where the bespeckled tile floors of school cafeterias around the state begin—that individual schools and districts should be allowed to make their own decisions regarding the fat-content threshold for foods allowed on campus.
Back in 2008, then-State Comptroller Susan Combs wrote a piece for Texas Monthly explaining how she came to be so concerned with the health of the state’s students. At the heart of the issue, Combs wrote, was a tension between profits made off food sold by outside vendors, like PepsiCo and Pizza Hut, which were paying schools money for exclusive contracts to stock vending machines with their foods.
From Combs in Texas Monthly:
It really hit home on the day I visited a school in San Marcos. There was this fourth-grader sitting on the floor. I was stunned at the size of him. His back was this wide. What were the messages kids like him were getting? There was nothing healthy for them to eat in the cafeteria, and there were all these vending machines in the halls with soft drinks: a sales-pitch-o-rama.
I said to a school trustee, “You’ve got to feed them healthier.” And he said, “I know. But we need the money.”
The day Combs visited the school in San Marcos was in 2002. By 2008, Combs was in office as the ag commissioner and had passed her series of reforms, all aimed at making Texas schools healthier places, where kids couldn’t be so easily tempted by potato chips, weekly cupcake parties, and endless soda options.
In 2003, around the time Combs visited the school and before her policy change, the childhood obesity prevalence rate among students between the ages of ten and seventeen in Texas was 32.5 percent. According to the most recent data from 2011, the rate climbed to 36.6 percent, which puts the state at number five on the nationwide ranking of childhood obesity.
So, based solely on those numbers, something isn’t quite working. And now commissioner Miller’s plan is to bring the grease, sugar, and french fries—a.k.a. freedom—back to Texas schools.
But just because schools can bring fries back to the snack bar menu doesn’t mean they will. According to the Wall Street Journal, Dallas ISD “removed its fryers more than a decade ago and has no plans to bring them back.” Miller isn’t going to go around performing ribbon-cutting ceremonies for every fryer that finds its way back into the cafeteria, but he does champion the right of each school to make that decision for themselves.
And by doing so, Miller ultimately places the power of choice back into the not-so-greasy hands of the state’s students.