Should Texas schools bring back deep fryers?

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Texas agriculture commissioner Sid Miller bites into a cupcake during a news conference in Austin in January. Photo by Reshma Kirpalani for the Austin American-Statesman.

Sid Miller, Texas’ new agriculture commissioner, has found himself in hot water.

In recent weeks, my colleague Eric Dexheimer revealed that Miller gave top-tier jobs ($180,000-a-year kind of jobs) to a political consultant who worked for free on his campaign and the wife of another longtime consultant, who also donated his service to Miller’s campaign. (The first hire appears to have been lobbying and working for the state at the same time.)

All that backscratching aside, let’s look at some equally disturbing changes that Miller is proposing for Texas schools.

In an op-ed in Friday’s Houston Chronicle, former agriculture commissioner Susan Combs pointed to three proposals that in her view would have a detrimental effect on Texas students.

The first — and most problematic to me — is that Miller wants to remove the current ban on deep fat fryers in school cafeterias. Every time I write about public school food, I have to remind readers who think that they serve nothing but fried, unhealthy food that schools in Texas haven’t been allowed to use fryers in more than a decade. (That’s also how long that guardian-baked cupcakes have been allowed for celebrations in school, another change that Miller make a splash trying to promote during the first week of the lege in January.)

Texas agriculture commissioner Sid Miller bites into a cupcake during a news conference in Austin in January.  Photo by Reshma Kirpalani for the Austin American-Statesman.

Texas agriculture commissioner Sid Miller bites into a cupcake during a news conference in Austin in January. Photo by Reshma Kirpalani for the Austin American-Statesman.

Miller is also pushing to limit the restrictions on when “competitive” foods can be sold. That’s food and drinks from vending machines, concessions stands and other outlets. He also wants to allow artificial sweeteners in the drinks sold in those vending machines and in the cafeterias.

Ringing that Tea Party bell of personal freedom, Miller claims that the government shouldn’t be telling schools that they can’t choose to have fryers or zero calorie Red Bull or vending machines selling Doritos during the lunch hour.

But as Combs points out, it is the Department of Agriculture’s duty to uphold school nutrition standards and look out for the best interests of both our kids’ health and the state’s economy. The first point is easy to understand: students have enough opportunity to eat fried foods. If schools want to provide meals that give students the best shot at academic and life, they need to serve food that is not fried.

To the fiscal point, Combs refers to a report she oversaw in 2011 that found that obesity costs Texas businesses more than $9 billion a year, a figure that could explore to $32 billion in 15 years. Also, Texas schools receive more than $1 billion in federal reimbursement for following national nutritional guidelines, which are harder to follow if they serve deep fried foods.

The vending machine and competitive food issues are important, but it’s that deep fryer proposal that has me most concerned. I can’t tell you how many times I sneaked two quarters from my parents’ change bowl when I was in high school to buy a bag of fried French fries at the school cafeteria and call it lunch. The grease soaked into the bag and I always felt terrible after I ate them, but it was the cool thing to do among my peers and it was more appealing that the ham sandwich I’d otherwise pack.

If being a parent has taught me anything, it’s that kids need help making the best food and eating decisions for their bodies. Deep fryers are an easy way to cook a bunch of food that kids are eager to eat in no time at all. Given the choice, schools could very well choose to bring them back into the cafeterias that parents are pushing so hard to clean up.

It’s enough to make a concerned parent miss the Meatless Monday-hater Todd Staples.

What do you think of these proposed changes? Do you think they have Texas’ students’ best interests in mind?

April 12 is the deadline to officially submit comments by sending an email to FoodAndNutrition@TexasAgriculture.gov or writing to Angela Olige, Administrator for Food and Nutrition, Texas Department of Agriculture, P.O. Box 12847, Austin, Texas 78711.


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