Despite Fryer Rules, Schools Must be Part of Obesity Strategy

This commentary originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman.

For Texans who believe we all need to pitch in to combat childhood obesity, the recent Texas Department of Agriculture announcement about allowing deep fat fryers and sodas back into schools was certainly a head-scratcher.

When fryers and sodas were removed from schools more than 10 years ago, there was no question as to why — they are not good for kids. We can’t always expect children to make healthy choices. Parents should help them decide when it’s time for a treat and when it’s time for something more nutritious. While children are at school, and parents are not there to encourage them to take veggies over fries or milk over soda, they rely on schools to be a good partner in steering their children toward healthy choices.

More than a decade ago, Texas responded to this desire to support nutrition in schools by becoming a national leader. Texas paved the way toward healthier school meals. Under then-Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs, Texas established its own nutrition policy, helping school districts minimize unhealthy offerings and increase the nutritional value of the meals they served. School districts elsewhere followed the state’s lead, making impressive improvements in the foods they serve to students.

Texas’ nutrition policy stayed in place until recent federal guidelines finally caught up to Texas and added some new rules as well. Texas adopted those as its own to streamline the school meal requirements for schools. We all have a role to play in combating childhood obesity, and these rules help ensure that school food service providers across Texas do their part.

Now that the Texas Department of Agriculture has eliminated some of these rules, it’s hard to see who benefits. The new federal guidelines make it difficult for schools to fry foods and receive federal reimbursement for the meal, so the state’s announcement does not appear to help school districts. And it certainly doesn’t help children. Soda and fried foods didn’t suddenly become healthy. If anything, health care professionals know more about their negative impact now than they did 10 years ago.

As childhood obesity rates have risen and scientists have learned more about the role fatty foods and sugar play, many school districts have responded by doing even more to improve child nutrition. So it wasn’t surprising to learn that eight of the state’s 10 biggest school districts already have reported they won’t bring in deep fat fryers or sodas. These districts, and all of the others that intend to stay the course, should be commended for doing their part.

Texans Care for Children believes schools should continue to model a healthy environment. Parents have every right to expect that when they send their children to school, the food that is available supports a healthy, well-balanced diet. Schools are one of the key environments our state can use to defeat childhood obesity. Texas schools reach more children than any other program or event. Schools influence Texas children for 180 days every year. They represent an incredible opportunity to provide children with a wholesome environment and inform them about the importance of health, nutrition and activity.

Let’s support Texas schools in their hard work and encourage our Department of Agriculture to do the same.

Lauren Dimitry is health and fitness policy associate for Texans Care for Children.