When Texas Agricultural Commissioner Sid Miller celebrated his January inauguration by declaring amnesty for the cupcake in Texas schools, his frivolous behavior was a ridiculous prelude to the more serious Congressional battle coming over preserving improvements to the nutritional standards for schools meals.

Miller’s stunt during his first official act in office was to reassure parents it is legal in Texas to hand out cupcakes to your children and their friends at school.  He feared parents might not be aware his predecessor had in fact reversed a 2004 policy banning the distribution to children — other than that from their personal lunchbox stash — of cupcakes and other items high in sugar and fat during the school day. Miller celebrated this as a win for “local control;” control over what is unclear, other than our right as parents to help make other people’s kids fat.

Meanwhile, Congress is poised to take up the fight on a national level to scale back nutritional standards adopted for school lunches and other child nutrition programs in the 2010 Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act.  The law required schools to improve dietary standards to be eligible for federal reimbursement for meals served during the school day and in sanctioned afterschool programs. New regulations that went into effect for the 2012-2013 school year increase servings of whole grains, limit total calories per meal by age group, reduce sodium levels, and require more and varied servings of fruits and vegetables. A serving of milk is also required on the school breakfast menu.
The Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act (which in addition to the National School Lunch Program authorizes funding and sets policy for the School Breakfast Program, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), the Summer Food Service Program, and the Child and Adult Care Food Program) is the premier safety net against childhood hunger and food insecurity.  Across the country, 12 million children eat breakfast at school daily, and more than 31 million children participate in the National School Lunch Program; 22 million of those receive free or reduced school lunch, which means their families live at or near the poverty line. Well over three million children also receive a third federally subsidized snack or evening meal in an authorized after-school program setting, and this relatively new program is growing in numbers to address unmet nutritional needs.
Our schools have been placed on the front lines in combatting childhood hunger.  Whether or not schools should be tasked with hunger relief (besides so many other unmet needs that fall to our schools to address — such as the stresses of poverty on a child’s ability to learn and thrive, lack of material resources and proper clothing, inadequate health care, poor parenting skills, discipline and behavioral issues, language and cultural barriers, and abuse and neglect — is a separate debate. But our social contract nonetheless places schools at the center of the safety net solution that school meals offer.
Equally significant, this reality puts schools square in the fight against the rampant obesity epidemic. Because so many children now receive a significant portion of their daily nutrition through the school and authorized after-care system, food served to our children in school is a major factor in getting kids to a healthier weight and in transforming the behavior that it will take to sustain a lifetime of good eating habits.
To be sure, a variety of factors contribute to obesity. Eating habits at home, ready access to healthy food and engagement in physical activity among others all play important roles in maintaining a healthy weight. But if we are to move the needle on childhood and adolescent obesity, it is imperative the food we serve in schools reflect what we know about the impact of healthy food on weight.
The Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act is set to expire in September, and political opponents are already lining up to weaken new, healthier standards that impact all meals served under the federal child nutrition programs. Sen. John HoevenJohn Henry HoevenLobbying world Hillicon Valley: Facebook to resume some political donations | Microsoft says Russian hackers utilized email system used by USAID to target other groups | Senate confirms Biden's top scientist Khanna, Mace introduce bill to strengthen federal cyber workforce following major hacks MORE (R-N.D.) announced legislation this week to roll back current whole grain and sodium standards. His proposal purports to give school nutrition services greater flexibility in their menus by reducing whole grain requirements and permitting more sodium intake.
The School Nutrition Association, which advocates for school food service groups, has been lobbying Congress to roll back the new standards. Schools have complained about the added food cost and have pointed to waste from students tossing uneaten food as indicators students don’t like the taste of the foods that qualify under the law.  But a new study by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut suggests otherwise: The study finds  students are choose fruit offered by the cafeteria 66 percent of the time, up from 54 percent in 2012 when the new rules went into affect. Students throw away less food than before the guidelines changed, consuming 84 percent of their entrees compared with 71 percent before.  Although there was a drop in the proportion of students who chose a vegetable on the lunch line, those who did ate 20 percent more of them.
This generation of children is the first predicted to have a shorter life span than their parents if current health trends continue. With a third of school age children overweight or obese, and with so many of our children eating one, two and three meals a day in the school setting, meals subsidized by our tax dollars, how can we in good conscience support lowering hard-won gains in nutritional standards?
Cupcake amnesty reminds us just how irresponsibly politicians can behave. Our children deserve measured guidance from responsible adults in their lives in setting healthy boundaries. Including Congress. We have entrusted our schools with the role of meeting our children’s nutritional needs. Let’s give them the tools and support to meet those.
Albert is a Public Voices Fellow at Texas Women’s University and an expert in food law and policy, concentrating on initiatives to improve access to healthy, affordable food in the North Texas area.