What the TX Deep Fat Fryer Fight Tells Us about the School Lunch Program

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Math with a side of onion rings? Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller announced this week that the state is repealing its 10-year ban of deep-fat fryers in school lunch facilities. The repeal also extends to a rule that restricted soda sales in vending machines. This new Texas rule seems like a terrible step in the wrong direction, but it does illustrate how current tensions over school lunches and nutrition are coming to a head in our country.

Miller’s argument centers on “freedom and liberty” and protection against the “overreach” of state and federal government. He believes that it should be up to individual school districts to decide what they serve children. Kate McGee of NPR explains:

Miller says lifting the ban doesn't mean schools will be forced to make any changes — they will simply have the choice to do so. "The school districts that disagree with my decision don't get a deep fryer," he says."

McGee explains in her article that many students, parents, and principals have no interest in the return of more sodas or fried food in their dining halls. Paul Webber of the Associated Press also points out that most schools are not flush with money to spend on new equipment and that in order to receive federal funding from the National School Lunch program, schools must follow the mandatory caloric ceiling, which would most likely preclude the deep fat fryer.  So, perhaps, Miller’s decree is largely symbolic. Webber explains Miller’s view on the efficacy of what Miller might call “overreach:”

But he says government mandates have failed to make kids healthier in Texas, where roughly two-thirds of residents are considered overweight or obese."

Commissioner Miller, a Tea Party-backed Republican, and other supporters of the repeal stand behind the “our bodies our choices” mantra. Yet others have taken issue with this exact point. Marie Bragg, assistant professor, NYU Langone Medical Center, recently challenged it in an opinion piece on NBC:

The freedom to develop cardiovascular disease?...Sid Miller's crusade to restore deep fryers in school cafeterias throughout Texas is more about the role business plays in shaping kids menus in schools than giving freedom to preteens to choose what they want to eat."

And longtime school lunch advocate Bettina Elias Siegel echoes Bragg’s concerns that this is largely an economic olive branch to Big Food businesses while she explains some of the other rules that Texas recently issued:

Miller has also lifted a decade-old ban on the sale of diet soda and caffeinated drinks to high schoolers, increased our allowed junk-food fundraising days from zero to six, and removed our common sense “time and place” restrictions on the sale of competitive foods. The latter change is in many ways the most troubling, because it means kids eating the nutritionally-balanced school meal (or their home-packed lunch) will now be tempted to ditch it in favor of packaged snacks sold right in the cafeteria during the lunch hour."

So, the school lunch debate is exposed here as a free-market versus regulatory argument. Do national mandates produce the desired results? Will local standards, which are more often based on the economic bottom line, be any better?

On the one hand, there are folks who argue that the Healthy and Hungry Free Kids Act (HHFKA) of 2010 that launched our new school lunch rules is failing. Jule Kelly and Jeff Stier offer the analysis in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece that school meals are unappetizing and they are having the reverse of their intended effect:

Even though lunches are “free,” they are so unappetizing thanks to new nutrition standards that much food is thrown away...So the students go hungry most of the day, until after school when enterprising vendors sell items like pork rinds, hot chips, or fresh corn mixed with cheese and mayonnaise from food carts outside of the school. Students don’t eat the free, healthy meals at school, remain hungry during the day, then flock to purchase the unhealthy foods the school lunches aim to replace."

On the other hand, reliable data shows that the HHFKA is increasing fruit and vegetable consumption and decreasing food waste. And furthermore, as an argument against the “free-market” economy stance, Dana Woodlow gives an excellent economic assessment of three of the first school districts who abandoned National School Lunch Program funding to bypass the HHFKA standards. The bottom line—it didn’t work:

Perhaps there are some schools – somewhere – that are simply rolling in money since bailing on the federal meal program. It does seem intuitive that if schools could serve whatever students wanted, the kids would buy it. But based on the results from the early adopter schools, it appears that sacrificing government funding for school meals in exchange for freedom to serve whatever, is not a recipe for financial success."

While the school lunch debate becomes more complicated and politicized—as public health groups gather their champions, and the School Nutrition Association lobbies for their Big Food companies—it seems it will all come to a head relatively soon. Every five years the Child Nutrition Act, that governs the National School Lunch Program (NLSP), must be reviewed by Congress—and so this year, on September 30th, the HHFKA will expire.

Mara Fleishman explains in a Food Tank article that there are some powerful forces at work attempting to make some changes that might make the NSLP worse off, including:

  • Eliminating the requirement that every student take a serving of fruit or vegetable with every school meal

  • Eliminating the requirement that all grains be whole-grain rich and maintaining the requirement that half of grains be whole-grain rich

  • Halting further sodium reductions

  • Allowing school meal items to be sold as a la carte items at any time, so kids could buy pizza and nachos every day instead of eating balanced meals

Fleishman may subscribe to the idea that schools, with their mandate to educate, are places where students learn good eating habits, and that they must set an example by serving healthy and nutritious choices—and NOT onion rings and french fries.

September will be a big month for the school lunch issue. While those in the “free-market, local-control, Miller” camp vs. those who have faith in federal regulations duke it out this summer, we will keep a close eye on the action.

Image via ourtownlive.com

Sources:

Read all articles by Damon Cory-Watson

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