AUSTIN (KXAN) – Texas’ agriculture chief, who also oversees the state’s school nutrition programs, announced a school nutrition policy revamp Thursday intended to combat childhood obesity and cut down on food waste.
New food initiatives the department plans to roll out include getting “farm fresh” foods into schools, hiring nutrition specialists and helping schools offer more appetizing foods that will be eaten rather than thrown in the trash, Miller said.
“What we have been doing has not worked. We are throwing so much food away. We have got to do something different,” Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller told KXAN. “We want to move from a culture of healthy trash cans to healthy children.”
In addition, the department plans to loosen restrictions on deep fat fryers, sales of certain carbonated beverages, availability low-calorie drinks and increasing the number of fundraising days allowed at schools, according to the department. Many Texas educators and health advocates have opposed those rules changes.
The rules would impact public, private and charter schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program or School Breakfast Program. Schools would still have to abide by federal standards, according to the proposal.
Miller said the rules changes are intended to reduce state mandates and give local school districts more latitude to make their own decisions.
However, some child nutrition experts and school district officials say repealing the ban on fryers and carbonated beverages will be counterproductive.
‘A step backward’
Through the Texas Public Information Act, KXAN obtained copies of all public comments received by the Agriculture Department, regarding the latest nutrition policy changes. The records show more than 100 comments, and nearly all of them are opposed to the fryer and carbonated beverage rule changes.
The American Heart Association asked in a letter that the agriculture department keep intact the current prohibition on soft drinks, and fryers, and “unhealthy fundraisers” should be limited.
The Rio Grande Valley Association of Schools, which represents 37 school districts and 11 charter schools, similarly opposed the rule changes.
“With almost 35 percent of children under the age of 18 meeting the clinical definition of overweight or obese in the state of Texas, the proposed rule changes support revenue generation by clubs, organizations and schools at the expense of child health,” the association wrote in a letter.
A representative with the Texas Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics wrote that it “is concerning” the department would repeal a ban on deep fat fryers because schools could fall out of federal compliance and lose funding. “Implementing these changes is a step backward for the health of Texas children,” the academy stated.
Miller said the agriculture department is trying to combat childhood obesity with the new rules. Most schools, he said, probably won’t even install a deep fat fryer.
If a school does install a fryer, it could be used to fry some farm-fresh potatoes, which would be an improvement compared to the pre-made, flash-fried and frozen foods that many school currently prepare, Miller said.
The goal is that kids will eat more appealing food and throw less in the garbage.
“We are going to work with the local school districts to create appealing meals and get away from this plastic tray mentality,” Miller said. “Things like food trucks and pizzerias and salad bars.”
Regarding beverages, Miller said schools will be able to offer milk, juices and low-calorie drinks, not sodas such as Coke, Pepsi or Dr. Pepper.
The department also unveiled a “Farm Fresh Fridays” campaign, which will bring farmers market foods to schools. The department will also provide training sessions on food presentation, increase farm to school programs and institute community health fairs, according to a news release.
“This may work. It may not,” Miller said. “It is certainly not going to be worse than what we have been doing.”