Freedom With Fries? Texas Official Wants Deep Fryers Back In Schools
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
A little more than 10 years ago, Texas banned soda machines and deep fryers in public school cafeterias. Now the state's current agriculture commissioner wants to end that ban. He believes these kinds of restrictions should be in the hands of local school boards, not state regulators. Kate McGee with member station KUT reports some students are among those who aren't happy with this idea.
KATE MCGEE, BYLINE: Fifth grader Austin Tharpe confidently takes me through the narrow lunch line at Doss Elementary School in Austin.
AUSTIN THARPE: You take a fruit.
MCGEE: And what did you just take?
AUSTIN: I took a banana.
MCGEE: Students must choose one fruit and one vegetable.
AUSTIN: So right here is broccoli. I think that's sweet potatoes, and then that's corn.
MCGEE: Healthy eating is a priority here. Ice cream hasn't been sold in five years. Sodas - try again. Candy - not one piece of chocolate is for sale. Tharpe says he doesn't think a soda machine or deep-fat fryer would be welcome.
AUSTIN: All those oils are definitely not good for you on a daily basis.
SARAH GARRETT: Fried foods, I think, are more of a treat, and if they had them a lot, it wouldn't be quite as a treat as it is.
MCGEE: That's third-grader Sarah Garrett. Commissioner Sid Miller insists his proposal is not about treating kids to fried food.
SID MILLER: We're all about what this country was founded on. We're about freedom, liberty and individual responsibility.
MCGEE: The agriculture commissioner regulates nutrition policies in cafeterias across Texas. Commissioner Miller, a Tea Party Republican and former state representative, is rarely seen in public without his white cowboy hat. His proposal is part of a slow rollback of school nutrition standards put in place by former Republican agriculture commissioner, Susan Combs. Combs angered many parents when she banned them from sending cupcakes and sugary treats into classrooms. That policy was repealed by her Republican successor, and then when Miller came into office earlier this year, he reminded parents of their rights.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MILLER: Texas will no longer keep you from bringing cupcakes to your children's parties or celebrations in their school.
MCGEE: Susan Combs, speaking from her ranch on vacation, says she was stunned by Miller's proposal to change the standards she had put in place.
SUSAN COMBS: Children learn to eat well in school if we have good nutrition policies in place. And if you change those, you're basically trying to reverse course.
MCGEE: About a third of Texans aged 10 to 17 are considered overweight or obese.
SARA SWEITZER: I really am a little baffled as to why they would loosen those standards.
MCGEE: That's Sara Sweitzer, a dietitian. Schools need to follow federal nutrition standards to receive money for lunch programs. Those standards limit the amount of sugary drinks students can have in school. She doesn't believe schools would risk losing that federal money to reinstall a soda machine. Commissioner Miller says lifting the ban doesn't mean schools will be forced to make any changes.
MILLER: The school districts that disagree with my decision - don't get a deep fryer.
MCGEE: And parents don't have to bring cupcakes for parties.
MILLER: It's not about cupcakes. It's about freedom and liberty.
MCGEE: At Doss Elementary School in Austin, Principal Janna Griffin says no way. She's not changing how her school cafeteria does business.
JANNA GRIFFIN: My parents would be all over me if I tried to bring a Coke machine in here.
MCGEE: Some students, like third-grader Mason Gilligan, would be upset too.
MASON GILLIGAN: If they brought back the soda machines and all of that, it would just be a whole mess.
MCGEE: As required by law, the Texas agriculture commissioner is currently reviewing public comments, but ultimately this is Miller's call. It's likely he'll lift the ban, and schools that want to bring back soda and deep-fried foods can start next school year. For NPR News, I'm Kate McGee in Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.