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Inside Politics

The Cafeteria Crusader

The Texas agriculture chief is making a stand against junk food


When schools opened in Texas this fall, some favorites were missing from the cafeteria menus: sodas and candy bars had been banned for grade schoolers; chips and cookies were mini-size. And that perennial favorite, the French fry, was given just one more year before it too will be banned. Howls of protest could be heard from Lubbock to Laredo. And not just from students.

Principals complained about being forced to act as "nutrition police." Teachers said they needed candy to reward students. Parents and kids traded schoolyard rumors about Twinkies being confiscated from lunch boxes. Nearly everyone, addicted to the revenues that vending machines bring in, yelled that there wouldn't be enough money for beloved activities like band camp and choir trips.

Angry e-mails poured in to the woman who had imposed the new rules ? Texas agriculture commissioner Susan Combs

At 6 ft. 2 in., Combs would stand out in any food fight, but the School Nutrition Association hails her as a pioneer for her groundbreaking junk-food ban, which takes on suppliers such as Coca-Cola and Frito-Lay that count on selling to schools to establish brand loyalty in kids.

Like a growing number of youngsters in the U.S., kids in Texas have been getting fatter. Over a third of all school-age children in the state are overweight or obese, far worse than the national rate of 10% to 15%.By 2040, the costs of treating those kids when they become obese adults is expected to hit $40 billion a year for Texas alone.

But hardly anybody seems willing to do much about the problem. Cash-strapped school districts are reluctant to give up their slice of the $104 million that outside food vendors make in the state from the likes of super-size sodas and pizzas each year. Although California was the first state to forbid soft-drink sales at elementary and junior high schools last year, bans on junk food in schools face opposition across the U.S. A bill by Iowa's Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat, to let the Federal Government develop nutrition guidelines for vending-machine food was scuttled by both parties.

No other state has a food ban as strict as the one in Texas. Even Mom's home-baked goodies, sold to benefit the school art program or the prom, can't be eaten during school hours.

A fourth-generation Texas cattle rancher, Combs is given to straight talking and no-nonsense solutions.

"The stats are so clear, the problem so dire, the financial problems so enormous, can we not address it?" she asks. Her detractors call her the Food Nazi behind her back ? to which she replies serenely, "I prefer czarina, not that they'll understand the difference."

The sniping about lost revenues from PTA bake sales and vending machines just leaves her exasperated.

"Are we going to sell marijuana to build gyms?" she says, relishing the hyperbole. "Well, the health-care consequences of this food are that bad."

A mother of three (her 25-year-old son is a Marine on duty in Iraq), Combs, 59, has been interested in children's issues since she was a young prosecutor in Dallas working child-abuse cases. When she became Texas agriculture commissioner in 1999, she noted the rise in childhood obesity but had the authority to do little besides tout healthy farm products.

Her breaking point came, she says, at a school in San Marcos, when the principal explained why the school needed junk food in vending machines as an obese young boy sat right in front of him.

"We have food chaos in our schools, with coaches selling food, moms selling food, PTAs selling, Project Graduation, the Kiwanis, and then there's the manufacturers trying to get into the schools to build brand loyalty," she says. One Lubbock grade school, she adds, even rolled carts with candy down the halls to sell to kindergartners. "The whole culture inside our schools is pervaded ? invaded ? by this marketing of food to the child. We put our financial needs ahead of their best interests," she says. "It's shocking."

But even a lifelong Republican in a Republican state can do only so much. At first Combs couldn't get the Texas legislature to limit vending-machine sales, but in 2003, working behind the scenes with Governor Rick Perry, she got the federally funded breakfast and lunch programs transferred from the Texas education agency to the agriculture department, giving her oversight of the outside vendors.

Last March she announced the new policy on junk food, to be implemented when school began in August. Combs has made adjustments over the months since, backing down on a ban on sweets at birthday parties and allowing bake sales ? although students can't eat their purchases until the last bell has rung.

And while kids can still bring whatever they want for lunch from home--"If you want to send deep-fat-fried Twinkies every day, that's your business," says Combs ? no sharing is allowed.

By cracking down on the parent bake sales as well as the corporate vending machines, Combs has avoided a plate-throwing confrontation with big contractors who bristled at the suggestion that their products were making kids fat. Some suppliers of prepared school lunches have even embraced new rules that set a weekly limit on the amount of fat and sugar in the meals.

Food-service provider Aramark, for instance, offers popular dishes like penne Alfredo made with less fat. Pizza Hut has reconfigured its school pizza to meet the new fat requirements. Frito-Lay brought in baked chips rather than fried ones and cut portion sizes. Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Nestle hustled in healthier new offerings too.

Early skeptics, from principals to PTA moms, are coming around to Combs' point of view, but it hasn't been painless. Richardson High School, north of Dallas, had to shut down its profitable Eagle Emporium, which sold candy that paid for VCRs in every room as well as sheet music for the choir.

"As sad as I was to lose the money," says former PTA head Pat Epstein, "we don't need to be stuffing our kids with bad food."

At Haggar Elementary School in nearby Plano, principal Vicki Aldridge mourned the loss of the Donuts for Dads events, but was pleasantly surprised when parents bought $800 worth of books for the school instead of spending the money on doughnuts and other sweets.

Meanwhile, Combs has urged PTAs to offer healthy alternatives ? muffins, fruit or water ? at food sales and encouraged teachers to reward kids with coupons redeemable at in-school stores for nonfood prizes. She has a new assignment for herself as well: addressing the state's lack of adequate physical-education programs and the cancellation of recess.

"We cram them full of unhealthy food and don't let them expend it," says Combs. "It's a recipe for disaster."

Look for a Susan Combs recipe to fix that too.

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