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, Sid Miller, wants to do away with that ban. He believes these kinds of restrictions should be in the hands of local school boards — not state regulators. But some students are among those who aren’t happy about this idea.
Take fifth-grader Austin Tharpe, who recently guided me through the narrow lunch line at Doss Elementary School in Austin. Healthful eating is a priority at the school. 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 fryer would be welcome.
“All those oils are definitely not good for you on a daily basis,” Tharpe says.
Third-grader Sarah Garrett agrees. “Fried foods, I think, are more of a treat. And if they had them a lot, I don’t think it’d be as much of a treat as it is,” she says.
But Miller insists his proposal is not about treating kids to fried food. “We’re all about what our country was founded on — we’re about giving our school districts freedom, liberty and individual responsibility,” says Miller, a Tea Party Republican and former state representative, who is rarely seen in public without his white cowboy hat.
The agriculture commissioner regulates nutrition policies in cafeterias across Texas. Miller’s proposal is part of a slow rollback of school nutrition standards put in place by former Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs, also a Republican.
Years ago, 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 That policy was repealed by her Republican successor.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: “Texas will no longer keep you from bringing cupcakes to your parties and celebrations at your schools,” he said at a press conference at the time.
Combs says she was stunned by Miller’s proposal to change the standards she had put in place. “Children learn to eat well in school, if we have good nutrition policies in place. And if you change those, you’re trying to reverse course,” she says.
About a third of Texans ages 10 to 17 are considered overweight or obese. Given those statistics, “I really am a little baffled as to why they would loosen those standards,” says Sara Sweitzer, a dietician with the University of Texas, Austin.
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. Sweitzer doesn’t believe schools would risk losing that federal money to reinstall a soda machine.
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.
And, he says, parents don’t have to bring in cupcakes for parties. “It’s not about cupcakes — it’s about freedom and liberty,” Miller says.
At Doss Elementary, Principal Janna Griffin says she’s not changing how her school cafeteria does business. “My parents would be all over me if I brought a Coke machine in here,” she says.
Some students, like third-grader Mason Gilligan, say they would be upset, too.
“If they brought back the soda machines and all that, it would just be a whole mess,” Gilligan says.
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 will be able to do so starting next school year.