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Texas Agriculture Commissioner, first elected in 1998
Former Assistant District Attorney in Dallas
Former State Director for U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison
Many awards, including the Texas Dietetic Association Bluebonnet Award for dedication to nutrition, the John P. McGovern Award from Texas School Health Association, the 2004 Texas Pediatric Society Distinguished Service Award
Graduate, law, University of Texas School of Law;Vassar College
Small business and fourth generation rancher
CBN.com Food Fight
It is a stark reality that for any public school district forced to give up the lucrative revenues generated by fast food vendors there will be vocal criticism. Texas Commissioner Susan Combs took that giant step and still stands firm in her resolve to keep unhealthy foods off the children’s plates in Texas public schools. For that brave step, the School Nutrition Association honors her as a pioneer for her ground-breaking junk-food ban, which confronts 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 U.S. children, Texas children have been getting fatter. Over a third of all school-age children – 35 percent – in the state are overweight or obese, far worse than the national rate of 10 to 15 percent. By 2040, the cost of treating those overweight kids who become obese adults is expected to reach $40 billion a year for Texas alone.
Few seem willing to do anything about it. Financially strapped school districts are reluctant to give up their part of the $104 million that outside food vendors make in the state each year. But, the 6-foot-2-inch, no-nonsense, straight-talking Combs poses, “The statistics are so clear, the problem so dire, and the financial problems so enormous, can we not address it?”
When schools opened in the fall of 2004, some favorites were missing from the cafeteria menus: Sodas and candy bars had been banned for grade-schoolers; chips and cookies were mini-size. The French fry has been given one more year before it is banned.
No other state has a ban as strict as the one in Texas. Real progress in the fight came when Combs, working with Texas Gov. Rick Perry, 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.
While some parents struggle with the idea of not being able to sell muffins and cakes at bake sales, Combs urges parents, along with teachers and school organizations, to look for healthy alternatives to reward kids and raise school funds.
The Texas Plan
Recent National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) data collected in 1999-2000 indicate that the prevalence of obesity in the United States is 20.6 percent of children age 2-5 years, 30.3 percent of children age 6-11 years, and 30.4 percent of children age 12-19. In Texas the rate of overweight and obese children is almost 50 percent more than the national average. Studies show that obesity will soon overtake smoking as the leading cause of preventable deaths among Americans. Poor diet and physical inactivity account for 400,000 deaths annually, and the number is on the rise. The number is expected to reach 500,000 by 2005 according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Combs, who chaired the Governor’s Conference on Children’s Obesity in Texas in September 2004, announced the new Texas Public School Nutrition Policy for all Texas public schools participating in the federal child nutrition programs. She says they want to ensure that foods served are nutritional and balanced, and they are dedicated to promoting an environment that nurtures both mental and physical development. The policy limits the number of grams of fat and sugar schoolchildren may have each week, and allows a phase-in period to eliminate deep-fat frying in food preparation for meals, a la carte items, and snack items. In addition, portion sizes for items such as chips, cookies, bakery items, and frozen desserts at elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools are limited. Sale of foods that compete with a school’s operation of the breakfast, lunch, or after-school snack programs is also limited. A school can lose up to $1.20 at breakfast and $2.19 at lunch in federal reimbursements for each meal lost to a competitive food sale.
“Texans have never been known to stand down in a fight,” Combs says. “I believe we can win the battle for our children’s health, but we have to start now. Real change will take all of us working together with a commitment to taking action today.”
One of the most devastating results of the trend in childhood obesity is the explosive rise in Type II diabetes. Diabetes is the leading cause of amputation, kidney failure, and blindness. Although Type II was unheard of in young children a decade ago, it is now increasing at an alarming rate. Unless things change in Texas, children born after 2010 will have a 50-50 chance of developing Type II diabetes. In addition to physical problems associated with obesity, the psychological factor must be considered because many obese and overweight children have low self-esteem.
A recent study found that 43 percent of adolescents watch more than two hours of television daily. An El Paso area survey reported that 16 percent of El Paso children and 19 percent of Juarez children watched at least five hours of television every day. Television advertises lots of fast food and candy. A little exercise would go a long way. Just getting kids moving a little would make a difference. Physical activity need not be strenuous.
The state has decided to make prevention a first priority. The plan includes the following steps:
Combs, who has been interested in children’s issues since she was a young prosecutor in Dallas working on child-abuse cases, is a fourth-generation rancher and Texan. She was sworn into office in 1999 as the state’s 10th Commissioner of Agriculture and the first woman to hold this position in the state’s history. She was re-elected in 2002. Commissioner Combs has a cow-calf operation on her family’s 100-year-old ranch in Brewster County.
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