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To Some, Miller's School Food Plan is Half-Baked

The reintroduction of deep fat fryers and soda machines into public schools may top the agenda of Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller. But some teachers and parents don't share his appetite for sugary drinks and french fries.

Sid Miller speaks at The Texas Tribune Festival on Sept. 20, 2014.

The reintroduction of deep fat fryers and soda machines into public schools may top the agenda of Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller. But some teachers, nurses and parents don't appear to share his appetite for sugary drinks and french fries.

The Texas Department of Agriculture received nearly 200 public comments in response to Miller's proposed repeal of a 10-year-old state policy that bans deep fat fryers and soda machines in public schools while limiting the time and place where junk food can be sold. Miller has also proposed expanding the number of days when student and parent groups can fundraise by selling sugary and fatty foods — from one to six per school year.

Of the 194 commenters, 135 were opposed to the proposed changes. Deep fat fryers were the overwhelming target of concern, with commenters using choice terms – "surprised," "shocked," "disheartened" and "appalled" – to describe their outrage. Among the 62 in support of the changes, more than two-thirds referenced the importance of using such foods to fundraise for public schools. A handful of commenters called for the return of the deep fat fryer, while a dozen or so offered more general support, citing the importance of local control and the need to reduce state-level mandates. 

I appreciate each and every one of the individuals who offered their feedback regarding the proposed rule changes,” Miller said in a statement, indicating that the repeal would allow schools to maintain strict standards if they wanted to. “The proposed rules do not require a school district to make changes; it simply reduces restrictions and increases options for local decision makers.” 

But for those who oppose the proposed policy change, a repeal would be a strike against the welfare of the state's children and young adults, who are increasingly obese and overweight. In 2013, 16 percent of high school students in Texas were obese, up from 14 percent in 2005. Only Arkansas, Kentucky and Alabama reported higher rates.

"Texas has long struggled to combat the childhood obesity epidemic and faces staggering obesity statistics," Suzanne Lozano, a registered nurse and the chairwoman of the American Heart Association's state advocacy committee, wrote to the ag department. "Obesity is not simply a health issue, it is an issue that will dictate the future of Texas and the productivity of our workforce."

The American Heart Association has joined the Texas Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the Texas Nurses Association and the Texas Parent Teacher Association to call for the current rules to be upheld. 

"Don't get me wrong, I am not a kale lover and I abhor the First Lady's idea of good food and caloric maximums. And, yes, I am a proud Republican," wrote Dr. Janice LaPointe-Crump, who called the reintroduction of deep fat fryers and sweetened beverages in public schools the "most absurd decision I can imagine." 

Her sentiments were echoed by Kevin White, a registered dietitian with the Tomball Independent School District, who said the current regulations were "not meant to be a temporary 'diet.'"

"It was meant to set the example of making and sticking to a lifestyle change," he wrote. "Repealing this would surely lead to more students eating out of vending machines."

Jim Walker, an attorney in Dallas, was more colorful in his concern about the state of Texas youth: "We are raising a state and nation of fat slobs that can text at 100 miles per hour but can't walk half a mile without collapsing in a pool of deep fried sweat."

Not everyone shared Walker's deep-fried concerns, citing bland food and meager portions as problems that have come hand-in-hand with stricter food standards. 

"My son is a senior – he is 6'3" tall and weighs 265 pounds; he cannot get enough to eat in the school cafeteria to even fill him up, much less cause a weight problem," wrote Teena Buie. "Let's teach the kids proper moderation instead of denying good taste."  

Others railed against state mandates more generally, thanking the ag department for standing up to what Kimberly Recio called “too much Big Brother in our schools.” 

And some commenters made no mention of fryers, soda machines or local control at all — taking aim instead at a fundraising restriction that they say suffocates school organizations and scholarship funds. 

On all fronts, our ability to raise funds was negatively affected by the new time and place legislation,” wrote Ryan Smosna, a teacher at Round Rock ISD, who said his athletics and PTA budgets had been slashed by an estimated $10,000 under the current rules.

While ag department staffers continue to comb through public comments, Miller says he will move to finalize the rule change in the next 45 days. One high schooler — the only student to file a comment in response to the proposal — thinks state officials should look to a traditional source of wisdom to find a solution. 

At this point, it seems impossible to have a lunch that tastes good but is healthy," wrote Huntyr Hayes, a student at Christoval High School outside of San Angelo. "However, I know it is possible. My mom does it every night." 

Disclosure: The American Heart Association was a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune in 2012. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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