Fried Food in School Cafeterias: 'It's About Freedom and Liberty,' Says Ag Commissioner

Apr 20, 2015

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller wants to end a decade-old ban on deep fried food in Texas public schools. 

Miller, who was elected last year, believes local school districts — not the state or federal government — should decide whether schools serve fried foods. He says the ban on deep fat fryers goes against his philosophy at the Department of Agriculture. 

“We’re about giving school districts freedom, liberty and individual responsibility," Miller says. "We’re all about local control and not big brother, big government control.” 

"I feel like he has come out so strongly in favor of policies that are so antithetical to children's health. I worry schools in our state are going to feel like it's a free-for-all when it comes to selling junk food."

The repeal of the ban of deep fat fryers is one of six proposed changes to the Texas School Nutrition Policy that Miller submitted last month. He also wants to remove restrictions on the sale of carbonated beverages. Right now middle and high schools cannot sell more than 12 fl. oz of beverages other than milk, and they must not contain more than 30 grams of sugar per eight ounces. Another proposed change would double the number of days schools can sell restricted foods, like junk food, at fundraisers. The number of days would increase from three to six. Those fundraisers would still not be allowed during the school day so they don’t compete with school cafeterias.  

School districts won't be required to purchase deep fat fryers and can still restrict the sale of certain foods, but some nutrition experts think the commissioner is setting a bad example when it comes to making sure students are eating healthy. As his first act as commissioner earlier this year, Miller also granted amnesty to cupcakes, reminding Texas parents that it’s no longer illegal to bring cupcakes and junk food to school for birthdays.

“I feel like he has come out so strongly in favor of policies that are so antithetical to children’s health," says Bettina Siegel, who runs the blog The Lunch Tray. "I worry schools in our state are going to feel like it’s a free-for-all when it comes to selling junk food.” 

Siegel is also a Houston ISD Food Services Parent Advisory Committee member and chairperson of the food/nutrition subcommittee of Houston ISD's School Health Advisory Council. 

In an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle last week, former Agriculture Commissioner and Texas Comptroller Susan Combs also criticized the proposals.

"The school districts that disagree with my decision, I just have to say, don’t get a deep fryer! Don’t let the room mothers bring cupcakes to school. That’s your decision, I’ll support you on that. That’s what this is all about. It’s not about cupcakes. It’s about freedom and liberty."

"In Texas, the Department of Agriculture is the agency charged with enforcing school nutrition standards, so it defies logic when the agency decides our kids need more sugary drinks and fried foods at school. The only people I can see benefiting from the proposed rules are the big business food and soda suppliers," Combs wrote.

Combs was Agriculture Commissioner when the department instituted the ban on deep fat fryers in 2005. 

But, Commissioner Miller says, in the past ten years, childhood obesity rates haven’t improved and these policies haven’t worked. 

“The school districts that disagree with my decision, I just have to say, 'Don’t get a deep fryer!'" Miller says. "Don’t let the room mothers bring cupcakes to school. That’s your decision, I’ll support you on that. That’s what this is all about. It’s not about cupcakes. It’s about freedom and liberty.”

According to state data, high school obesity rates have oscillated between 13.9 percent in 2005 and 15.7 percent in 2011. Texas currently ranks fifth in the nation for high school obesity. 

The Department of Agriculture is currently reviewing public comments on the proposals, which ended earlier this month. Department officials say the review process could take a few months, but the changes would take place in the 2015-2016 school year.