I’ve written extensively this year (including an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle) about Texas’s new Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller and his politically motivated scheme to return our schools to the junk food Stone Age. Today is one of the last days to submit public comments on the proposed regulations which would bring about his misguided plans, and here is the letter I’m submitting.
If you live in Texas, it’s not too late to get your views heard. Please take a few minutes to share your thoughts in an email to Angela Olige, the Administrator for Food and Nutrition at the Texas Department of Agriculture. Her email address is FoodAndNutrition@TexasAgriculture.gov and the email must be sent by Saturday, April 11th.
Ms. Angela Olige
Administrator for Food and Nutrition
Texas Department of Agriculture
P.O. Box 12847, Austin, Texas 78711
Re: Proposed Changes to Texas Department of Agriculture Chapter 25,
Food and Nutrition Division Subchapter A, Texas School Nutrition Policies
Dear Ms. Olige:
I am a Texas resident, a Houston ISD public school parent and a writer and commentator on issues relating to children and food policy.
Texas may have a reputation for BBQ and rodeo fare, but I’ve been proud to inform people outside our state that we’ve actually been a national leader when it comes to school nutrition policy. Almost a decade ago, when our state recognized the serious problem of rising childhood obesity, we didn’t sit around and wait for the federal government to step in. Instead we instituted a groundbreaking school nutrition policy to remove the worst junk food on our school campuses, including a ban on deep fat fryers and the imposition of common sense “time and place” restrictions on the sale of competitive foods in the cafeteria during school meal times.
Now, though, the Texas Department of Agriculture inexplicably wants to take a huge step backwards in child nutrition by proposing: a return of deep fat fryers to our schools; a six-fold increase in the number of allowed junk food fundraising days; and the abolition of the “time and place” competitive food restrictions that have served our children well for over a decade.
While I would like to think better of the TDA and our new Agriculture Commissioner, Sid Miller, it seems as though these proposed changes are motivated by nothing but politics. Mr. Miller publicly derided the old Texas school nutrition policy as sounding “like something from the Obama administration” — despite the fact that it was championed by a fellow Republican, former Agricultural Commissioner Susan Combs. He has also misled the public into thinking the current regulations are federally imposed, when in fact they were generated at the state level: at a press event supporting the proposed rule changes he said, “We’ve been raising big, strapping, healthy young kids here in Texas for nearly 200 years. We don’t need Washington, D.C., telling us how to do it.”
Mr. Miller has said he just wants to return more control to individual districts. But a prior change to TDA regulations had already accomplished this goal by allowing districts to opt out of the “time and place” rules. All districts had to do was include the change in their board-approved wellness policy, leaving the rules in place as a baseline for the rest of the state. There was no need to abolish the rules altogether, particularly now that school districts have had a decade’s worth of experience in administering them effectively.
As for deep fat fryers, there are not only public health but serious economic consequences to consider here. If districts selling deep fried snacks are caught doing so in a school food audit, they will have to pay back their federal meal reimbursements for each day the violations occurred. In the Houston Independent School District alone, where over 270,000 daily meals are served, that figure is around $540,000 per day.
And, generally speaking, any policies which foster childhood obesity will directly harm Texas taxpayers and businesses. In 2009, it was estimated that the rising costs of obesity in our state came to $9.5 billion annually. By 2030, obesity could cost Texas employers an astonishing $32.5 billion annually,
The bottom line is this: Over 30% of our teens are currently overweight or obese. We rank fifth in the nation for high school obesity. Despite Mr. Miller’s bombast, those children are not “big, strapping, healthy young kids.” They are children who are on a path that is likely to lead to diabetes, heart disease, liver disease and/or an unnecessarily shorter lifespan.
The proposed changes to the TDA rules show a shocking disregard for the needs of these Texas children, and I urge you to reconsider this misguided course of action.
Bettina Elias Siegel