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Ag Candidates Weigh In on School Lunch Program

One of the Texas agriculture commissioner's biggest jobs is running the federally funded school breakfast and lunch program. Read what the Republican and Democratic candidates for agriculture commissioner have to say about the program.

By Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal
School children at Cantu Elementary in San Juan, Texas, are shown eating breakfast on April 24, 2013.

Ahead of Tuesday’s primaries, the eight Republican and Democratic candidates for Texas agriculture commissioner have discussed a range of issues, including federal environmental regulations, border security and whether to legalize marijuana.

Now they’re addressing how they would run one of the biggest programs in the Texas Department of Agriculture: the federally funded school breakfast and lunch program, which served more than 800 million meals to Texas schoolchildren during the last school year.

The program had been run by the Texas Education Agency, but when Comptroller Susan Combs was elected agriculture commissioner more than 10 years ago, she took on childhood obesity as a major cause, and the program moved over to the Department of Agriculture in 2003. Soon afterward, she set a nutrition policy for foods that could be served during school hours. In 2008, the department also took over a number of other nutrition programs from the Health and Human Services Commission, and it added 100 employees that year.

During the 2012-13 school year, the agriculture department spent nearly $1.8 billion in mostly federal money on breakfasts, lunches and snacks for Texas schoolchildren. Another $290 million in federal money paid for meals in day care centers.

Here’s what each major party candidate said about how he would run nutrition programs in Texas:

J Allen Carnes (Republican, mayor of Uvalde): “I will streamline costly and cumbersome administrative costs associated with the federal program. I am a farmer with a finance degree, and I will put my business and ag experience to work as Texas Agriculture Commissioner.

As far as getting local food into Texas schools, I’m already doing it. I’ve been involved in public-private partnerships which recruit businesses to help pay for salad bars in Texas public schools. I applaud the efforts of TDA to eliminate junk food from schools. Ultimately the responsibility for feeding Texas children rests with parents. And I support Texans’ rights to make their individual dietary decisions.”

Joe Cotten (Republican, financial adviser): “If I’m elected, I will completely overhaul this program from A to Z. Some of this food they serve, I wouldn’t serve to my dog. The nutritional part is atrocious. It is a joke.”

“Somebody ought to be held criminally responsible for feeding our kids dog food.”

Tommy Merritt (Republican, former state representative): “I want to move the school lunch program back to [the Texas Education Agency]. ... I don’t think the ag commissioner should be working on school nutrition. It’s a federal program. … They don’t have any input, they don’t have any control over that. To me, it is a distraction for the ag commissioner to deal with the school lunch program.”

Sid Miller (Republican, former state representative): “I don’t expect to find any huge cost savings. I think Todd Staples has done a good job. But the first thing I’m going to do is comb through that program with a magnifying glass and see if I can find any waste or fraud.”

“I also want to work to repeal a lot of the state nutritional requirements, like the ‘cupcake law’ [limitations on baked goods that can be brought to schools by parents]. I disagree with it totally. That’s a local decision.”

“I would also like to see more locally grown food and locally grown meat in schools.”

Eric Opiela (Republican, attorney for state Republican Party): “As agriculture commissioner, I will fight national nutritional guidelines, which discourage consumption of fresh, Texas-grown foods, and result in high amounts of food waste. I know Texans are better able to determine what should be served to our public schoolchildren than some bureaucrat in Washington.”

“[I will] vigorously pursue changes to protect the taxpayer’s dollar and reduce fraud and waste in the system.”

Hugh Fitzsimons (Democrat, rancher): “I want to get food raised locally, I want it to be sustainably raised, and I want it in the schools. I’m emphasizing Texas-raised, Texas-grown [food from] smaller producers, and getting it into the schools. I also want to get kids gardening in schools.”

Kindy Friedman (Democrat, musician): “Everybody’s for a good program. It’s like Mom and apple pie, we’re all for that one. I think that means locally produced [meals, and food from] family farming and family organic farming, if possible. And maybe some of these urban places that are doing urban farming … and if the kids can garden at the schools, you really have something.”

Jim Hogan (Democrat, farmer): “Children’s school lunches should be a top priority. Those decisions should be made through a consultation of parents.”

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