The Politics of Healthy Eating

An interview with House Majority Leader Alice Madden

It’s back to school time and the problem of childhood obesity-and how schools might help curb it-is in the news. The New York Times  recently reported that the obesity rate of  adolescents has tripled since 1980. In Colorado, public schools are making changes, as I reported here.In Colorado, House Majority Leader Alice Madden (D) has been at the forefront of efforts to improve children’s nutrition in Colorado. She was the House sponsor of the law that is requiring schools to follow “wellness” plans this year that estabishes nutrition guidelines and physical education requirements. She also sponsored an ill-fated bill, vetoed by Gov. Bill Owens in April 2006, that would have required that at least half of school vending machines to be stocked with nutritious choices. She talked with me about the importance of children’s nutrition, politics, and her two sons’ food choices.

When did you start working on children’s nutrition?

I was in the minority when I first started working on this issue, and the bills I sponsored would just die in committee. I was called the “nutrition police.” These were the same people who were voting for CSAP [Colorado Student Assessment Program] testing, and they said that they didn’t want to interfere with the schools.

What got you interested in the subject in the first place?

I have two kids-one is in seventh grade, the older guy is a high schooler and is 14–and I really see the difference in one of my son’s behavior depending on what he eats. If you have 30 people in the classroom, it would make a big difference if the child has sugar and caffeine for lunch. It could make for a tough afternoon for everyone. It doesn’t seem fair to the kid, it’s not fair to the other kids, and it’s not fair for the teacher.

Then you look at our obesity rates and diabetes, and there’s even cases of children’s bones breaking because they are drinking less milk. So it seemed like a rational approach for schools to provide healthy meals. It seemed like not a crazy idea to encourage kids to eat produce from Colorado farms, to have a choice of snacks from vending machines. It’s interesting-companies like Coca Cola supported my vending machine legislation. The dairy farmers supported it because they’ve seen the consumption of milk dropping. But Gov. Owens vetoed it.

Didn’t he say politicians should look at own vending machines in the state capitol before they start regulating what’s in school vending machines?

I don’t buy food from vending machines so I don’t know what he was talking about. But I’m also not trapped in the building and I’m not fifteen years old. He said he didn’t want to micromanage schools, but he’s the author of CSAP. We definitely live in an irony free zone in the capitol.

Who lobbied against your nutrition bills?

It was politics. No one was really against it. I was the leader of the Democratic caucus. We were criticizing the 527 group Trailhead at the same time I was pushing these bills. It was just politics. Owens didn’t want the other party to have too much success.

What role did being a mom play in your decision to make child nutrition a major issue?

We’re a citizen legislature in Colorado. I happen to be a lawyer. But we all bring our life experiences. My kids are school aged, so when the school nutritionists approached me about sponsoring these bills, I knew what they were talking about first hand. If you have a fourth grade class with 35 kids and five or six are really sensitive to what they eat, that will affect the entire classroom. I could put myself in that situation and empathize with it immediately. My analogy was always you wouldn’t put crappy gasoline in your car. It just didn’t seem conscionable to provide bad food for kids.

[cross posted at Muckraking Mom]