Years before Sarah Palin brandished a cookie to protest the government eliminating sweets in classrooms and Michelle Obama used her position as first lady to promote healthy eating, Susan Combs made big changes to school lunchrooms in Texas.
In 2004, Combs, who was then Texas agriculture commissioner, launched the Texas Public School Nutrition Policy, which banned certain unhealthy foods along with deep fryers and soda machines from cafeterias across the state.
Combs first took her plans to the state Capitol, where conservative legislators like Sid Miller stymied her bid to pass legislation they thought would curtail local control of schools. Instead, she implemented the program as an extension of her office.
Now Combs and Miller both want to become agriculture secretary under President-elect Donald Trump, where they could control billions in federal tax dollars and oversee programs designed to promote nutrition.
The secretary of agriculture has responsibility for nearly 300,000 square miles of national forests and grasslands, the safety of food production and the food stamp program for low-income households.
Whether it’s “Michelle Obama, Susan Combs or myself, we all want healthy children,” Miller said in an interview with McClatchy. “I’m kind of an unusual duck as a conservative: I embrace the federal nutritional program but I go about it in a much different way.”
Miller has been a vocal critic of Combs’ food initiatives since being elected as Texas’ agriculture commissioner in 2015, and he wants to see the government promoting local fruits and vegetables instead of implementing guidelines to eliminate junk food.
“Let me say this about Susan Combs: She’s a good lady and I have a lot of respect for her,” Miller said. “She’s a great Texan, and she took this on singlehandedly, before the federal government stepped in. But since then the (child) obesity rate went from 10 percent to 13 percent in Texas, so it wasn’t working on top of the federal guidelines that came forward later.”
Most of Combs’ initiatives that eliminated certain foods were rolled back under Miller’s predecessor, Todd Staples, but that didn’t stop Miller from granting “amnesty” to a cupcake on his first day in office to highlight the looser regulations on schools serving junk food.
“She prohibited mothers from bringing cupcakes to school for Valentine’s Day,” Miller said.
Combs and Staples did not immediately respond to emailed requests for comment.
Some nutritional advocates argue that Combs’ guidelines were instrumental in creating healthy food choices for kids at a time when the federal government had fewer requirements for healthy school lunches.
“I was very fond of the nutrition policies Combs had,” said Jenny Eyer, manager of health and nutrition programs for Children at Risk, a Texas-based nonprofit that works with school nutrition programs. “In my mind they were really good for the health of kids, and at that point in time Texas had more strict standards than the national standards. When the standards were being rolled back, a lot of people were fine with the stricter standards in schools, as kids still had . . . healthy options.”
Eyer added that Miller’s “amnesty” for deep fryers was relatively symbolic because it was expensive for schools to buy new fryers and hard for schools to fry food and still remain under federally mandated calorie counts.
Combs and Miller traveled to Florida last week to interview for the agriculture secretary position. Combs met with Trump himself, while Miller met with senior Trump advisers Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus.
“I think after my meeting I had, they slowed the process down,” Miller said of the search for agriculture secretary. “I brought up a couple of new areas that other candidates didn’t talk about.”
Miller said he’d highlighted trade deals, trade with Mexico and immigration during his meeting.
“I think they were thinking trade is more like manufacturing jobs, Ford cars and Carrier air conditioners,” Miller said of the transition team. “They didn’t gather how important ag trade was, especially with China.”
Miller supports more free trade agreements because they open up more markets to large-scale agricultural producers.
Multiple outlets have reported that former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue is the leading candidate for agriculture secretary, but Trump’s team has yet to make a decision on the Cabinet position, which requires Senate approval.
Miller, who said he did not have a timeline for when Trump would make a decision, said diversity could play a role in whom Trump chooses for the post.
“There’s always talk that probably it would be nice to have a Hispanic in the Cabinet; they’ve already got four women,” Miller said. “Sonny Perdue and myself are white men. One thing I think is important is that whoever is nominated needs to have an ag background, hopefully a farmer or rancher.”