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On selling junk food in Texas schools

Every session, there’s at least one bill that gets passed with little to no notice that has completely unforeseen effects. The Lunch Tray breaks a story about one such bill from this past regular session, which has to do with the sale of junk food in Texas schools.

When it comes to the sale of junk food on campus, high schools tend to be the biggest offenders. Here in Houston ISD, for example, high school students, PTOs and coaches often set up fundraising tables at lunch to sell entrees from local restaurants and fast food chains, everything from pizza to Chinese food, creating veritable “food courts” of junk food.  Students often prefer to buy these items rather than eat in overcrowded cafeterias or go off campus, and the fundraisers are so lucrative that some principals not only turn a blind eye to them, they are rarely deterred even when TDA fines the school for a violation.

Last spring, though, [Texas Department of Agriculture] got serious and imposed fines totaling $73,000 on eight Houston high schools for illegal competitive food sales.*  Those eye-popping fines made headlines and local TV news, and apparently motivated someone to head up to the state house in Austin to successfully lobby on the issue.

Alluding to the recent TDA fines imposed in Houston, Republican House Representative Ken King introduced in the last legislative session HB1781 which “ensure[s] that Texas high schools have the freedom” to continue junk food fundraisers and which expressly forbids the TDA from fining those schools based on the food’s nutritional content.  Six Republican and two Democratic representatives joined King in co-sponsoring the bill, which ultimately passed and was signed into law by Governor Rick Perry on June 14th.  The law is now in effect statewide.

So while the nation as whole is moving forward on issues relating to childhood obesity and poor nutrition, Texas has taken a big leap backward in protecting fundraising that directly and adversely impacts student health.  That development is disheartening enough, but here’s where it gets really messy.

Whoever drafted HB1781 decided to use some legislative shorthand to describe the types of foods that high schools may continue to sell.  But instead of referring back to the state regulations the bill is trying to thwart, HB1781 instead allows Texas high schools to sell “foods of minimal nutritional value” (FMNV), as that term is defined by federal law.

The federal definition of FMNV harks back to the 1970s when there were virtually no rules regarding competitive food and the government was trying to keep the “worst of the worst” out of school cafeterias during meal times.  FMNV is defined generally as foods providing less than 5% of the daily value of certain nutrients and specifically as: sodas and other carbonated beverages; water ices; chewing gum; and certain types of candy — hard candy, jellies and gums, marshmallows, fondants, licorice, spun candy and candy-coated popcorn.

So while the Texas legislature was trying to allow high schools to sell fast food entrees at lunch, its sloppy drafting has inadvertently limited high schools to selling only a few foods – basically soda and candy – identified by the federal government over forty years ago as the least healthy for our children.

As TLT notes, when new federal regulations go into effect for the 2014-2015 school year, Texas will be in violation of them. Will Greg Abbott and/or one of the Abbott wannabees sue the federal government to defend Texas’ precious right to let its public schools sell Royal Crown and Moon Pies in school cafeterias? I’ll be honest, I’m kind of rooting for them to do so, just because I think the briefs would be hilarious. Be that as it may, I will point out that HB 1781 passed the House unanimously on the Local and Consent calendar, meaning that it was a bill that was fast-tracked for passage on the grounds that there was basically no opposition to it. What that says to me is that the contents and effect of the bill where not well understood. The TDA may be able to do some things with the implementation of this bill to mitigate its effects, but ultimately it will take an act of the next Legislature to fix this. Hopefully now that this issue has been raised, it can be dealt with.

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2 Comments

  1. Casey says:

    Thanks you Texas for making Kentucky look good! I noticed it is one of the states that didn’t include data for the latest CDC map on childhood obesity. Was this on purpose? http://kyhealthykids.com/2013/08/07/middle-school-orientation-junk-food-fest/

  2. Mrs. Taylor says:

    The ones who really have suffered are the elementary kids. Parents can’t send cupcakes to celebrate birthdays anymore. Teachers can’t reward with a skittle. It wasn’t about childhood obesity. It’s about money. Someone besides Texas kids benefited from the Dept. of Agriculture sticking their nose into where it didn’t belong, education.