State agency proposes loosening rules on deep-fried foods in schools

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Proposed Texas Department of Agriculture rules could nix state-level restrictions on deep fat frying and the sale of certain carbonated drinks in Texas schools, according to an agency proposal.

The proposed changes would also loosen rules on food sold at certain fundraising events during the school day, according to a posting with the Texas Secretary of State.

TDA oversees the school lunch programs in the state. Spokesman Bryan Black said the rule changes would allow for increased school district control over food options rather than state mandates. The rule proposal is open for a 30-day comment period through mid-April, he added.

Black said the new rules would allow “diet sodas and flavored carbonated waters” to be sold to high school students. The drinks would have to meet federal calorie restrictions. The rules would also allow Texas schools to deep fry food on-site. Those foods could include chicken fingers, chicken-fried steak, steak fingers, fritters and vegetables. Schools are allowed to bake previously flash-fried or pan-fried foods.

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.

The potential rule changes fall in line with the values that helped Republican Commissioner of Agriculture Sid Miller win his seat in November.

“Commissioner Miller wants to be able to give local schools local control,” Black said. “So if districts decide they want to do this, they can go forward and put in the deep fryers and sell some beverages on school campuses.”

Black said the proposed rule change is similar to Miller’s “cupcake amnesty” announcement in January. At that announcement, Miller proclaimed Texas would not block children from bringing cupcakes, cookies and snacks to school.

Asked if the commissioner is concerned about obesity, Black said, “Of course.”

Citing Miller’s cupcake amnesty stance, Black said the commissioner doesn’t want “kids to go out there and eat 10 cupcakes, but if a kid wants to have a cupcake and have a celebration in the classroom that should be up to the school district to decide.”

If approved, the rules won’t change the food offerings at Austin ISD, said Tracy Lunoff, AISD school health coordinator.

“We’re not going to do anything different. We’re committed to the health and wellness of children,” Lunoff said in a statement. “We also strive to be the leader and role model in Texas for providing healthy, delicious food for students in AISD.”

Christine Pollei, executive director of Marathon Kids, a national organization promoting healthy eating and physical activity for children, expressed concern about the proposed rule. Pollei said the changes appear consistent with many Texas officials’ promotion of individual responsibility and opposition to federal oversight.

But, Pollei said, this issue is not about adults who can choose to eat what they want.

“Children eat what we put in front of them,” Pollei said. “This is about children in a completely built environment that we built for them.”

Furthermore, Pollei said she is concerned about the overall health and wellness education kids are getting and how that impacts their decisions to choose healthy food and exercise.

It is not exactly clear which fried foods or drinks Texas schools would be allowed to serve and sell, while still abiding by complicated federal standards, if the changes are approved.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, a food that has less than 10 percent saturated fat calories and less than 740 milligrams of sodium for high school students can be served under the National School Lunch Program.

Elementary and middle school students are generally not sold beverages with sweeteners. High school students are not sold beverages with more than 40 calories per eight fluid ounces or 60 calories per 12 fluid ounces, according to federal guidelines.

Comments on the proposal can be submitted to Angela Olige, administrator for food and nutrition with the Agriculture Department, at: Texas Department of Agriculture, P.O. Box 12847, Austin, Texas 78711, or by email.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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