The Lone Star State may soon find its school lunch lines getting a lot lonelier. Thats because the food police will be coming to a local school cafeteria near you if Texans do not take a stand against the nutrition guidelines recently announced by the Texas Department of Agriculture. This summer, on August 1, 2004, when Texas families are still focused on fun and sun, the revised Texas Public School Nutrition Policy will take effect, significantly restricting the foods available on school grounds and in the cafeterias.
Susan Combs, Commissioner of the Texas Department of Agriculture, issued the new guidelines on March 1, 2004, touting them as an "attempt to promote a healthier environment in schools" designed to counter childhood obesity. But what the 15-page culinary blacklist really amounts to is yet another attempt by big government bureaucrats to usurp the power of local governments, school districts, teachers and parents charged with the primary education and care of our children.
If the food police have their way, gone are the days of pizza parties and birthday cakes in Texas classrooms that is unless school officials specifically approve the event as one of just three annual events per school year allowed under the new rules. Teachers will no longer be permitted to reward children with candy. Festive sprinkles, candy hearts and jelly beans can no longer garnish cupcakes or cookies, assuming those latter sweet treats can even be offered at all with stringent restrictions on foods containing refined or added sugar and trans fat. "Foods of Minimal Nutritional Value" (FMNVs), which include soda water, water ices (any " sicles"), chewing gum and most candies, are outlawed. Even elementary school fundraising projects that involve food are on the chopping block, not to mention the middle and high school food fundraisers that will have to meet tough nutrition standards and bow to time-and-place limitations.
While far too many foods are banned under the policy, even more are severely restricted by both serving size and how often they may be offered. For example, at elementary schools, French fries may not exceed a 3-ounce serving, may not be offered more than once per week, and students may only purchase one serving at a time. In fact, beginning in the 2005-06 school year, frying as a cooking method must be eliminated altogether.
No food is safe from being targeted under the policy. Only skim, 1 percent and 2 percent milk may be served, and flavored milk is allowed only if it contains no more than 30 grams total sugar per 8 ounce serving. If fresh fruits are not available, frozen or canned may be offered, but only if packed in natural juice, water or light syrup. Schools may not serve items that contain more than 28 grams of fat per serving more than twice a week, to be reduced to 23 grams per serving by the 2006-07 school year. Cafeteria workers will be sent back to school themselves to learn to read and decipher complicated food labels before they offer up the next school menu.
The restrictions only apply, at least for the moment, on food offered through a schools food service program, but this includes soda and snack vending machines, too. Ultimately, that may make lunch boxes the hottest commodity on back-to-school shopping lists this fall as more students may opt to bring their own lunches rather than be subjected to Texas do-not-eat list.
Moreover, on campuses with open-door lunchtimes, more high school students may opt to venture off-campus to eat, quickly dashing to their favorite restaurant or convenience store to purchase items they cannot get on school grounds, while putting themselves at increased risk for personal injury. Most parents can do the math and would prefer that their child be served these foods on campus rather than encourage them to get behind the wheel or in the passenger seat of some teenagers car to go in search of these delectable treats.
Quite simply, Texas has gone too far in feeding the food police. First, the policy takes control away from local government, school districts, teachers and parents, who should be the first line of both offense and defense in our childrens lives. What our children eat for and in-between meals is a parental choice, not a decision that needs the stamp of approval from some government bureaucrat.
Second, the policy is arbitrary. There is no evidence that banning certain foods on campus, including sodas, chips and candies, will do anything to reduce the number of overweight youths. Kids will still be able to buy sodas off-campus, bring them to school in their lunchboxes, or drink them at home. Moreover, such a draconian solution does nothing to teach children about enjoying certain foods in moderation; it only adds to the already lengthy list of what the schools consider contraband, often making the forbidden objects only more desirable.
Our schools should not be policing our childrens eating. They should be educating them about nutrition, while leading them toward healthy food choices and self-control. We do not live in world of black and white, and if we dont arm our children with the skills to make their own choices in the gray zone, we are setting them up to fail. Indeed, we will be left with nothing more than a new generation of Americans who will graduate from high school having been taught how to point the finger at others and avoid taking personal responsibility.
Finally, the policy will hurt the financial bottom line of far too many schools, ultimately hurting the very students it is intended to help. Many secondary schools will have to outlay cash for costly equipment changes. With potentially greater numbers of students opting next fall to brown-bag-it or leave campus for their meals, already suffering school lunch programs stand to lose a lot more. Reports indicate that schools lose $3.25 a day per student in federal funds each time a student doesn't eat from the lunch line. Texas' total deficit in 2001 was $23.7 million and more recent estimates from the Comptrollers Office put the losses close to $60 million.
Under the new policy, most schools wont be able to make up financial shortfalls with vending machine contracts, revenue from which many schools are dependent upon to pay for instructional programs and materials and to support extracurricular activities. Ms. Combs own records request resulted in reports from 932 of Texas 1256 public schools, showing that these contracts generate about $54 million a year. It is unclear how lost revenues will be replaced after vending machines are removed from school cafeterias.
The Joint Committee on Public School Finance in Texas is already working on finding "innovative ways that the Legislature might fulfill its obligation to public education, while reducing the reliance on local property taxes." Add Ms. Combs forced deficits and Texas public school financing faces disaster.
The Young Conservatives of Texas, once a supporter of Ms. Combs, recently questioned her legal authority to ban certain foods, stating that "Texans elected Susan Combs as Commissioner of Agriculture, not the states food policewoman. While Combs has been delegated oversight authority over federal school meal programs, she has exceeded her scope of this authority [because the] intent of the Texas Legislature was not to impose such a ban."
We agree. There is no simple solution to childhood obesity, certainly not one that is universally and unilaterally imposed. What our children need is a common-sense approach that calls for more physical activity and better nutrition education, not food police. After all, if they wont listen to the teachers and parents that are closest to them, why do we think that that Commissioner Combs will be any more successful in telling them what to eat and when to eat it.March 25, 2004