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Bioethicist: Deep-Fat Fryers in Schools is Business, Not Freedom

Image:  fresh fries are scooped into containers

Fresh fries are scooped into containers during lunch at Gardiner High School in Gardiner, Maine. Pat Wellenbach / AP file

How bad is the obesity epidemic among kids in America?

Bad enough that 69 percent of young adults in Minnesota cannot serve in the military due to obesity-related health problems, according to a recent report “Too Fat, Frail and Out-of-Breath to Fight,” from a group of retired generals.

And how is one public official responding to the child obesity crisis? With a call for more fried foods in school.

The Texas Agriculture Commissioner, Sid Miller, says he wants to restore deep-fat fryers in Texas school cafeterias. In his mind, this “isn't about french fries, it's about freedom.”

The freedom to develop cardiovascular disease?

School cafeterias are the front line on the battleground for childhood obesity prevention. They serve as test kitchens for interventions designed to increase the consumption of fruits and vegetables and decrease the intake of processed and fried foods. In 2012 the USDA and First Lady Michelle Obama announced standards for more nutritious school food. As part of the rules, schools are expected to serve fruits, vegetables and whole grains daily, and limit calories in servings.

In addition to the Texas Ag commissioner’s effort to encourage 9-year-olds to eat French fries every day, school nutrition programs have faced intense critical scrutiny in recent years. But the fights over broccoli, chocolate milk or hush puppies on cafeteria trays are a distraction from the loudest, and perhaps most influential, voice in this cafeteria clash.

Agricultural lobbyists have maintained a stranglehold on school nutrition since the early days of the Farm Bill, spending millions of dollars on lobbying efforts to shape school lunch policies, count ketchup as a vegetable, keep starchy white potatoes as lunchroom staples, and more recently, even outsource school lunch to fast food companies. Sid Miller’s crusade to restore deep fryers in school cafeterias throughout Texas is more about the role business plays in shaping kids menus in schools than giving freedom to preteens to choose what they want to eat.

Choice may not be the best value for children in selecting their diet. Humans are hardwired to choose foods high in sugar, salt, and fat. Historically, these helped us survive times of scarcity. But today’s calorie-laden food landscape hardly resembles famine.

Researchers have found strong links between children’s eating habits and their adulthood dietary patterns, meaning poor nutrition in the early years sets kids up to struggle for a lifetime. Studies also show that individuals who are overweight or obese as children are five times more likely to grow up to be overweight adults. This translates to a whole host of physical health consequences, social stigma that can lead to depression and anxiety, and $190 billion in national healthcare costs.

Changing the tide of the obesity epidemic has a lot to do with taking small and bold steps in school nutrition and national food policy. Trying to keep deep fryers out of school kitchens would be a great place to start.

Marie Bragg, assistant professor, NYU Langone Medical Center, NYU Global Institute of Public Health co-authored this opinion piece.