AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — It's about freedom, not the fries.
So says new Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, who announced Thursday that the state is repealing a decade-old ban on deep fryers in public schools — an unappetizing reversal to national health advocates, school nutritionists and even his predecessor in the post.
Miller, a self-described "pot-bellied" calf-roper and former teacher, says his focus is firmly on combatting childhood obesity. But he says government mandates have failed to make kids healthier in Texas, where roughly two-thirds of residents are considered overweight or obese.
He is also relaxing restrictions on certain soft drinks in campus vending machines, saying that school districts need flexibility.
"You got a boy that goes to Anson High School — he plays in football, he plays both (offense and defense) — he can't make it on 870 calories. That boy burns 3,500 calories a day," Miller said. "He gets home, he hauls hay and milks cow and moves irrigation pipe. Then there's another child that's not active athletically. They may be into academics or band or some other extracurricular. Eight-hundred-seventy calories may be fine for that kid."
Experts say they can't recall other states making similar reversals, and the American Heart Association says the changes fail to provide a healthy school environment.
It was among dozens of groups, school leaders and voters who wrote letters of opposition to Miller's agency, which administers the federal National School Lunch and Breakfast programs in Texas schools.
"It sends the message that food prepared in a deep-fat fryer is acceptable," wrote Leslie Boggs, president of the Texas PTA.
Miller says critics are missing the point that Texas is simply giving schools the option of reinstalling deep fryers if they want starting July 1.
He conceded that his decision is mostly symbolic and that few schools might take advantage of the relaxed rules — since the state won't be the one buying new fryers for cash-strapped schools. Like practically all Texas Republicans last year, Miller partly ran on fighting what the GOP candidates call federal overreach.
But he believes fried foods are OK in moderation and says it would be nice to grab a carbonated drink from a vending machine during a basketball game. His five-point plan for curbing childhood obesity includes expanded farm-to-school programs in campus meals.
The National School Lunch Program puts caloric ceilings on meals — high school lunches max out between 750 and 850 calories, and saturated fat must be less than 10 percent of total calories. That makes it unlikely that schools will resume deep-frying, said Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokeswoman for the Maryland-based School Nutrition Association.
"Limits on calories and fat pretty much ended frying in school foods," she said.