Rocío Guenther / Rivard Report
At an event designed to promote getting more local produce into school cafeterias, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller criticized one school system's introduction of "Meatless Mondays," calling it nutritionally unsound.
"We're not doing that in Texas," Miller told the Rivard Report after making the comments during a speech Wednesday at a Farm to School workshop hosted by the Northeast Independent School District at the Piper Bass Memorial Student Center. "That's not healthy. Not only is it stupid, it's not healthy. This is Texas – we're going to eat beef."
The controversial state agriculture commissioner, who was on a short list of candidates to be President Donald Trump's Agriculture Secretary, has criticized federal school lunch program guidelines and made a show of granting "amnesty" to cupcakes in school cafeterias and classrooms. On Tuesday, Miller announced a feral "hog apocalypse," approving the use of a warfarin-based poison. Warfarin is also used as a human blood thinner and a poison for rats. More than 3,000 hunters and wildlife experts have signed a petition opposing the move.
"I'm a Republican and more of a local control person," Miller said. "We oversee 5 million schools' meals each day, and I took a different approach when I became commissioner. We had all these mandates in our schools – no more deep fryers, soda machines, and bake sales. That didn't sit too well with me."
Miller called federal government mandates "well intentioned," but said that they just don't work.
"The obesity rate in children was at 10% [under the previous agriculture commissioner] and when I took over it was 13%, so it's obviously not working," Miller said of attempts to introduce healthier foods in school menus. "My second week in office, I said I was granting amnesty to cupcakes and did away with the mandates – back to local control."
Miller said his approach in the fight against childhood obesity is to collaborate with schools instead of issuing mandates. Despite criticizing the "Meatless Mondays" instituted in Dripping Springs public schools, Miller has been a champion of school gardens, exercise programs, and Farm Fresh Friday, which makes available fresh local produce in schools once a week. He told the Rivard Report there are around 144 schools participating in the Farm Fresh Friday program.
Miller also is working on setting up a network for local producers to get involved with schools through the use of a mobile app.
The Wednesday event was made possible by a 2015 U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm to School grant to NEISD. Key stakeholders in the food supply chain came together to network and start conversations with the goal of increasing local purchasing within school districts, something Miller strongly supports.
"In those first six months, there was $12 million more product purchased in Texas for our school cafeterias," Miller said, "so we are getting the fresh food in our cafeterias and at the same time we're helping our farmers and expanding their markets. In a year's time, we think we'll be up $30 million sourced locally in our cafeterias."
One of several invited guest speakers, Miller said he wants to make the lunch room "fun again," which is why he brought back deep fryers and drink machines with federally approved drinks that are low in sugar.
"The federal guidelines and the food that they require to serve is healthy, but it tastes like cardboard," Miller said. "What we have is healthy trash cans instead of healthy kids."
Miller argues that kids will leave school hungry because the options available aren't appetizing to them.
"Somewhere in an industrial kitchen – probably Sysco's – they deep-fry whatever it is and add additives, preservatives, and dyes and other junk," Miller said. "If you bring the deep fryer in and buy a locally grown potato, cook it cut it up and cook it fresh for lunch – no additives no dyes, no preservatives – which ones do you think the kids will eat? The fresh. It's just healthier."
Many believe that it's possible to eliminate baked goods like cupcakes and sugary drinks in schools and still get kids to eat the available options.
"There's a school here in town called Colonial Hills Elementary in the Northeast Independent School District, and they're the only school in San Antonio that has rejected cupcakes, [they have] no soda on their campus at all, and all of their vending machines are healthier," said Heather Hunter, who is a board member of the Food Policy Council of San Antonio.
Colonial Hills was awarded the National Healthy Schools Silver Award from the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, an organization that works to reduce the prevalence of childhood obesity and to empower kids to develop lifelong healthy habits.
"They have a productive garden on their campus," Hunter said. "They harvested enough cabbage from their garden that they were able to serve coleslaw and give every child a sample in the lunch line that day. They are truly living, eating, and breathing the farm-to-school model."
Hunter believes that Colonial Hills Elementary is a school that can set the bar in San Antonio when it comes to increasing healthy options in schools. Instead of just giving kids more vegetables on their lunch plate, they can participate in growing those vegetables.
"We know statistically and through research that children who plant seeds and grow food eat it," Hunter said. "Then chicken nuggets take a back seat, and they eat more fruits and veggies."
Hunter said that the Wednesday event served as a launchpad for bridging the food supply chain and bringing together farmers, producers, distributors, wholesalers, and school representatives to think of innovative ways to solve different challenges that schools face in their food programs.
"There's a host of citrus, seasonal vegetables, or a lot of protein that we grow in regions of the state and a lot of that produce doesn't reach our schools. Instead, it gets exported to the rest of the country," Food Policy Council of San Antonio President Mitch Hagney said. "That system and distribution is wildly inefficient. There's no reason for it to be like that. Different stakeholders within the food system can make independent choices that already fit within the existing rules. It doesn't have to be top down."
Sustainable agriculture specialist Robert Maggiani told the Rivard Report that getting different stakeholders at the same table is the first step to making local connections and getting the wheels moving.
"Schools are serving good, nutritious food, but the issue is it's not helping the local economies, and you can do both at the same time," Maggiani said.