AUSTIN - The suspension of soft drinks and fried foods from Texas schools may soon be lifted, but at least one nutrition expert doesn’t think administrators will welcome back the goodies, regardless of what the rules allow.
“I think the culture has moved on with the times,” said Jessica Donze Black, director of the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project, a project of the Pew Charitable Trusts and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
“The vast majority of parents think there should be strong nutritional standards for foods in schools. I think they’ll continue to move in that direction, regardless of tweaks," she said.
Texas was ahead of the national curve when former Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs kicked the deep-friers out of schools in 2004, said Black.
Combs' successor, Todd Staples, repealed the state's School Nutrition Policy last year, but deep-fried food and carbonated drinks remained in exile.
That was until Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, elected last fall, made news in January when he declared an “amnesty on cupcakes," followed by a proposal to let schools decide whether to reintroduce fried foods and soft drinks.
Department spokesman Bryan Black said there have been about 200 public comments on the proposed change, and a final decision is expected by July 1.
Miller frames the changes as one of choice. The National School Lunch Program allows fried items, he notes, as long as they meet certain standards.
Federal policy also "allows schools to serve the beverages we have proposed," he said. Those are diet sodas, carbonated water and flavored water.
“I believe each school district — not the state or federal government — should decide what foods are offered to students,” he said. “It’s about giving back local control and allowing each school district to make the best decision for their community.
Miller won office last fall after besting Jim Hogan, a Cleburne farmer who gained the Democratic nomination over the novelist, songwriter and marijuana advocate Kinky Friedman.
Hogan, who ran a low-budget campaign between feeding his livestock and tending crops, dismissed Miller's proposal.
“It wasn’t nothing but a publicity stunt. It’s kind of political stuff," he said.
Miller’s move to let Texas towns and cities decide on school food comes as some fellow Republicans try to consolidate decision-making in Austin on a host of local issues - such as gas well operations, red light cameras and tree trimming.
It also comes as Texas-sized belt buckles are taxed by bulging bellies. Though the state complies with federal rules for serving school lunch and breakfasts, one-third of its children are overweight or obese, according the Child and Adolescent Health Management Initiative at Johns Hopkins University.
Adults are in about the same shape. The obesity rate, about 31 percent, is 15th highest in the country, according to the Trust for America's Health. A decade ago it was 25 percent.
Black, of the Pew Trust, said there’s no room for backsliding in schools, which serve nearly 3.1 million lunches and 1.7 million breakfasts per day on average, according to the agriculture department.
“The leadership has seen this for a long time,” she said, referring to healthier school menus. “It’s become rather normative.”
Mona Little, child nutrition director for schools in Stephenville, where Miller won his first elective office, said the district no longer has a deep frier.
She acknowledged that students would likely go for carbonated drinks during school hours.
For now, those drinks are kept in a separate area that is controlled by a timer and only available after school, she said.
As for returning to deep-fried chicken, Little said, distributors have adjusted the products they sell schools to conform to changing menus.
“Pretty much everything is baked. Pretty much everything is whole grain, down to the pasta,” Little said. “You can have a whole-grain chicken nugget. The kids have adjusted to it.”
Little laid much of the blame for obesity on technology.
“They’re not running outside. They’re looking at Xbox,” she said.
John Austin covers the Statehouse for CNHI's Texas newspapers. Reach him at email@example.com.