The Skinny On Obesity

I’m Comptroller Susan Combs. When they say everything’s bigger in Texas, they’re not kidding. We have four of the ten most obese cities in the country, and nearly two thirds of our adult population is overweight or obese. Such an epidemic has not only massive health implications but also a huge impact on our economy. In 2005 obesity cost Texas businesses $3.3 billion in absenteeism, disability, decreased productivity, and health care expenditures. By 2025, when today’s grade-schoolers will be in the workforce, we could be looking at $15.8 billion a year in obesity-related costs if we don’t deal with the problem.

In the late seventies, when I was a prosecutor in Dallas, I handled child abuse and neglect cases. I had a case where a mother had starved her four-year-old twins—each child weighed sixteen pounds. The phrase I kept hearing was “failure to thrive.” We saw case after case where a child’s brain functioning had been altered because of inadequate nutrition.

Fast-forward to 2002. I was ending my first term as commissioner of agriculture, and we had gotten very aggressive about promoting healthier foods. And this terrible story about our children began to be unavoidable: They were getting heavier and heavier and sicker and sicker. It struck me that I’d gone from seeing kids being starved to death to seeing kids being fed to death.

It really hit home on the day I visited a school in San Marcos. There was this fourth-grader sitting on the floor. I was stunned at the size of him. His back was this wide. What were the messages kids like him were getting? There was nothing healthy for them to eat in the cafeteria, and there were all these vending machines in the halls with soft drinks: a sales-pitch-o-rama.

I said to a school trustee, “You’ve got to feed them healthier.” And he said, “I know. But we need the money.”

As education funding by the state had dwindled, districts like San Marcos had had to find other revenue, so schools gave vending machine companies exclusive contracts to sell certain beverages in exchange for a percentage of the proceeds. Sometimes the cafeteria was prohibited from selling milk!

That summer, the governor’s office asked me to take over the school nutrition program from the Texas Education Agency. I said yes, as long as I had the power to make changes. Within a couple of weeks, all foods of minimal nutritional value had been kicked out of the elementary schools. No more soft drinks, hard candy, cotton candy, or chewing gum.

Then I filed an open-records request to find out exactly how much money the schools were making from the vending machine contracts. It was $50-some-odd million in gross revenues, but they were also losing millions a year because kids weren’t eating in the cafeteria—because they were eating all these competing foods. At one school near Houston, these mothers would park outside and sell a thousand tacos a day. We had to stop them. Everyone’s trying to make money off the kids’ backs.

The other thing we did was to tell them to cut back on the cupcake parties. They were happening every week! We said, “You can have them only for a birthday and three other holidays, like Valentine’s Day, Halloween, and Christmas. The rest of the year, if you want to send a cupcake to your kid, have at it. But you can’t send a cupcake to someone else’s kid.”

The good news is that because Texas has the largest school lunch program in the country, the vendors got the message.

PepsiCo, which owns Frito Lay, came out with something like 86 snacks that met our new standards. We said, “Shrink the size of all your stuff,” and they complied. And PIZZA Hut reconfigured its pizza for Texas schools.

Another part of battling obesity is exercise. I don’t know anybody over forty who did not have to do P.E. all the way through high school. Well, that’s changed. P.E. is not required, because the schools have other things to do. We tried a few years ago to make it a mandate, but there were thousands of letters from groups supporting other electives saying, “No, we can’t do it. Ours is more important.”

To get around this, in 2007 I put a $10 million rider in the TEA’s budget to incentivize middle schools to do P.E. We’ve gotten 140 districts to go along so far. They get a $1,500 base grant and $33 per child after that. Just as I was on the don’t-feed-them-bad-food side, now I’m on the let’s-be-sure-they’reactive side. Energy in and energy out!

Some of my fellow Republicans might say, “Isn’t our party the one that gets government out of people’s lives?” The way I square this is, when government requires a child to be incarcerated in a school, then government should do no harm while that child is in its care, custody, and control. We must confront this very real threat to our future. The consequences of our not being pretty aggressive about it will be awful for Texas.

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