The Cafeteria Crusader

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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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