"Cupcake Amnesty:" Childhood Obesity and the Political Divide

This morning in Austin, our state's newly elected Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller is holding a press conference to announce his first official act in office.  But Miller won't use the occasion to address Texas's troubling water shortage, which he had promised to make his "top priority" if elected, nor will he discuss any other issue of pressing concern to the state's farmers or economy.

Rather, Miller will kick off his four-year term as Agriculture Commissioner by "declaring amnesty for cupcakes across the state of Texas."  According to Miller's press release, "We want families, teachers and school districts in Texas to know the Texas Department of Agriculture has abolished all rules and guidelines that would stop a parent from bringing cupcakes to school.  This act is about providing local control to our communities."

Whatever you think of Miller's administrative priorities, there's actually no legal need to "declare amnesty" for school cupcakes here in Texas.  A parent or grandparent already has the right to bring cupcakes (or any other food) to a school birthday party or classroom celebration, a right guaranteed by our state legislature with the 2005 passage of "Lauren's Law," better known as the "Safe Cupcake Amendment."

So no cupcake-related "rules or guidelines" were in fact "abolished" by the Texas Department of Agriculture, which oversees our state's child nutrition programs, but Miller likely cares little about the specifics.  His cupcake stunt is more likely a response to the new federal Smart Snacks rules, which set forth stringent nutritional standards for foods and beverages sold to children during the school day, apart from the school meal. Nothing in the Smart Snacks rules affects classroom or birthday treats (since they're not offered for sale) but the rules did effectively put an end to junk food fundraising during school hours, a development which hasn't been popular with some Texans.

Given that Miller was once named the "second most conservative" member of the Texas legislature -- not an easy status to achieve in these parts -- it's not surprising that he wants to be the standard-bearer for local control against a meddling federal government's anti-childhood obesity measures.  And Miller isn't even the first conservative to raise aloft a classroom birthday treat to rail against governmental interference. Sarah Palin made headlines back in 2010 when she brought 200 sugar cookies to a Pennsylvania fundraiser to protest that state's proposed guidelines for classroom parties, which would encourage parents to send in healthy snacks like fruits or vegetables.  Palin tweeted that day: "2 PA school speech; I'll intro kids 2 beauty of laissez-faire via serving them cookies amidst school cookie ban debate;Nanny state run amok!"

The irony, of course, is that the states most adversely affected by the obesity crisis (i.e., conservative Southern states) are often the least amenable to policies which might ameliorate that crisis.  This phenomenon is consistent with a 2011 Pew Research Center poll which found that 80 percent of liberal Democrats felt the government should play a "significant role" in fighting childhood obesity while only 37 percent of conservative Republicans and 33 percent of those aligned with the Tea Party agreed with that statement.  (Interestingly, the ethnic groups most affected by obesity. Hispanics and African Americans -- were far more likely than whites (89 percent and 74 percent versus 49 percent, respectively) to support governmental intervention.)

These differing political philosophies will matter greatly in the year ahead, when the Republican-controlled Congress will square off against the Obama White House over a likely effort to permanently weaken school food nutritional standards. In leading a similar campaign during the 2015 appropriations process last year, Rep. Robert Adherholt (R-AL) predictably couched the rolling back of the standards as a matter of creating "flexibility" in onerous federal regulations and returning local control to school districts.  But let's be blunt: many of the states most ardently in support of "local control" seem to be doing the least effective job in combatting childhood obesity, if statistics are any guide.

For example, the conservative National Review gleefully declared Miller's cupcake amnesty announcement to be "further proof that Texas is the greatest state in the union." No good Texan would never argue with his or her state's greatness, but we do also hold the distinction of ranking fifth in the union for obesity among high school students, and thirteenth in the union for our climbing diabetes rate, which is predicted to reach almost three million cases by 2030. Over 36 percent of our kids aged 10-17 are overweight or obese, and that number is likely to grow as they age:  in 2009, almost 67 percent of Texas adults were either overweight or obese, a figure which could reach an astonishing 75 percent by the year 2040, if present rates persist.

Against that backdrop, let's examine those unnecessarily "pardoned" birthday cupcakes a little more closely. In my children's crowded Texas public elementary school classrooms (some of which had up to 27 kids), students' birthdays could be celebrated well over 20 times a year. Putting aside all the other sugary treats kids receive at school from teacher rewards or classroom parties, not to mention illegal junk food fundraising, that's 6,000 extra calories per child per year (20 x 300 calories). Multiply that figure by six years of elementary school and, assuming a pound of fat equals 3,500 calories, a child in Texas public school could gain over 10 extra pounds from birthday cupcakes alone.

The debate over the proper role of government will rage eternally, of course.  But when it relates to child nutrition, the argument is not just theoretical. Sid Miller can polish his conservative bona fides by granting "amnesty" to cupcakes, but wrongheaded policies relating to school meal standards and classroom junk food adversely affect the health of real children every day. When, down the road, those policies manifest themselves in the form of obesity-related diseases and shorter lifespans for those children, I won't be as generous as Mr. Miller in handing out pardons.