When Did Cupcakes Become a Political Pawn?

It’s usually not a good idea to write a blog criticizing a high-ranking official in the organization that you work for. Especially when the “organization” has a $1.4 trillion GDP and is the 2nd-biggest state in the U.S. So if I get fired in the next couple weeks, I’ll know why. But I couldn’t keep my mouth shut after the bombastic spectacle of newly-elected Texas Agriculture Commissioner, Sid Miller, granting a “cupcake amnesty” on Monday.

MillerMiller staged a ridiculous press conference to announce that his first act in office was to ensure cupcakes were allowed in schools. It was one of many promises made by Miller, whom Bettina Elias Siegel of The Lunch Tray eloquently characterized as “bizarrely determined to fatten up Texan children as quickly and efficiently as possible.” He also promised to restore deep fat fryers in schools and sell soda in school. That’s right – we elected a man who wants to violate even the weak standards set by the American Beverage Association.

The announcement meant nothing (cupcakes are already allowed) and I suspect the goal was simply to sell an image of Miller courageously standing up to big government. He did it because that’s what school nutrition has turned into – a political tool. A symbol to prove your conservative mettle. Opposing school nutrition standards isn’t about values or ideology; it’s not a long-held conservative belief. It’s more like an anti-Obama badge.

How do I know? Because school nutrition wasn’t always the hyper-partisan issue that it is now. Some of the earliest school nutrition reforms came in red states, including the Lone Star State itself.

Texas and its neighbor, Arkansas, were 2 of the first states to implement new school nutrition policies, statewide, in the early 2000s. Political leaders took a leap of faith by implementing policies to improve school nutrition standards because they realized that childhood obesity had become a public health crisis. It was a leap of faith because there was little evidence to back them up at the time. Policy changes were picking up momentum, but the science to support them hadn’t arrived yet.

I know because I started pursuing a career in the field right then – and I had almost nothing to build upon. Fortunately, leaders in Texas and Arkansas recognized that change was urgently needed. The school nutrition standards they implemented weren’t as strong as today’s, but simply by introducing the (radical!) idea of requiring healthy food for children, they gave researchers a chance to test the idea. Investigators at the Baylor College of Medicine produced some of the earliest evidence that school nutrition policy changes could improve students’ diet.

Groundbreaking evidence came from his own state, which is why I was particularly disgusted by Miller’s comment that nutrition standards have been a failure. “It hasn’t helped, so we’re going to roll those back,” he reportedly said. I don’t know if Miller is “intentionally deceptive or just plain ignorant,” as Siegel also eloquently put it (though “intentionally deceptive” has my vote.) Either way, he’s not acknowledging the facts. As a fellow Texas employee, I can attest that school nutrition standards are associated with improvements in children’s weight status over time.

Frankly, though, I’m not sure Miller is interested in facts. School nutrition standards have become too much of a partisan symbol to bother with facts. And, sadly, Sid Miller doesn’t need to lift a finger because most of Texas’s Public School Nutrition Policy was repealed last year. Texas led the way to improve school nutrition in the early 2000s and now they’re leading the way to undo all the positive changes that took place. This flip-flop did not occur because a different political party with different values is now in charge. A Republican Agriculture Commissioner, Susan Combs, led the original state Public School Nutrition Policy in 2004. School nutrition is simply more of a political pawn in 2015 than it was in 2004.

And if you disagree with me, because you think Miller’s views represent long-held conservative values, look at who was the Governor of Arkansas in 2003, when the state began to improve its school nutrition standards. It was Mike Huckabee. If that doesn’t convince you that school nutrition standards can appeal to conservative leaders, I don’t know what will.

(Image Sources: Flickr/Frederic BISSON, Under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 ; Texas Tribune, Marjorie Kamys Cotera)

I am an Assistant Professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health, where I specialize in childhood obesity policy research and systems science. This is my personal blog; any views or opinions expressed do not represent the University of Texas (or anyone else with power.)

My research has been featured in the New York Times, NPR, CNN, Wall Street Journal, and several other media outlets. You can follow me on Twitter at @DanTaber47, where I often tweet about obesity news, school nutrition, public transit, systems science, and occasionally random topics like Seattle sports, marathon training, or my latest obscure vacation destination.

6 thoughts on “When Did Cupcakes Become a Political Pawn?

  1. Pingback: My Houston Chronicle Op-Ed Re: Texas "Cupcake Amnesty" - The Lunch Tray

  2. Pingback: Saturday Stories: Linus Pauling, Political Cupcakes, and Life Happiness * The New World

  3. Pingback: A Problem Bigger Than Sid Miller | Daniel Taber

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