Texas, and all of America, is experiencing an obesity epidemic that threatens to overwhelm our medical system with diabetes, cancer, heart and liver disease. Yet, Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller has proposed repealing Texas school nutrition policies designed to help parents keep their children healthy when they're at school. As a parent and former Commissioner of Agriculture, I am mystified by what is driving this effort. Texans who share my concerns should make their voices heard on the following proposed changes:
Miller's proposals would modify current rules in the Agriculture Code that relate to nutrition for children in Texas schools and open the gates to foods that often harm more than they help. They include removing restrictions on deep fat frying, lifting limits on the sale of certain carbonated beverages and enabling schools to sell food and beverage items that are currently restricted under state code.
The issue of holding the state responsible for how it feeds schoolchildren is not new to me. As Comptroller of Public Accounts, I could see the potential damage to the Texas economy if we failed to take action on obesity. In 2011, I released a report on the rising costs of obesity in Texas and estimated obesity-related costs for Texas businesses were $9.5 billion in 2009. Left unchecked, obesity could cost employers $32.5 billion annually by 2030. Bottom line, our "strapping kids" are not particularly health kids.
Repealing these rules also makes no fiscal sense. Schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) are required to comply with federal nutrition guidelines in order to receive reimbursement - Texas received $1.3 billion dollars in NSLP reimbursements last year. Serving sodas, or foods made with deep fat fryers, would be in violation of federal guidelines, and if discovered in an audit, would require school districts to pay back their reimbursements for each day where a violation occurred. Our most vulnerable children need access to healthy food, not a kick to the nutrition curb, and our schools don't need another bill to pay.
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 benefitting from the proposed rules are the big business food and soda suppliers. According to the Texas School Physical Activity and Nutrition Survey conducted by the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living, 11th-grade students in Texas drink an average of two sodas per day. Daily consumption of sugary drinks (1 to 2 cans per day) leads to a 26 percent greater risk of developing Type 2 diabetes compared to those who do not regularly drink sodas.
Commissioner Miller may not believe that health is within the purview of his agency, but diet and health are intertwined. As Hippocrates famously put it, "Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food." Commissioner Miller's actions will have a negative ripple effect on Texas children, starting with their health and expanding outward to their academic performance. We want kids to learn about and experience healthy meals in school so that they can make responsible decisions when they get older.
As the Department of Agriculture works through these proposed rule changes, they appropriately seek citizen input through their Administrator for Food and Nutrition. I hope my fellow Texans will send Miller and his team a strong message about our regard for the health of Texas school children, saying "keep the rules and keep kids fit."
Combs is a former state representative, agriculture commissioner and state treasurer. She most recently was state comptroller and currently serves as a board member of the CATCH Global Foundation.