Her wake-up call came without warning one morning in April 1998. California State Sen. Martha Escutia—then 41 years old, 60 lbs. overweight and three months pregnant—felt her heart race and her legs wobble-while voting on a bill in the capitol building in Sacramento. She slumped in her chair, dizzy and weak; nurses rushed to apply cold towels to her face. "It was close to being insulin shock," says Escutia, 45, a diabetic since her late 30s,. who hadn't taken enough insulin that morning to account for the stress she would be under that busy day. "What happened scared me."
Escutia was scared enough to start a crusade that could change a million lives. After her frightening near collapse—and the birth of her second son, Diego—the 5'6" Escutia immediately gave up junk food and began working with weights and walking on a treadmill at a gym, shedding 25 lbs. in a year. The lawmaker, a Democrat, also dived into research on how obesity contributes to the onset of diabetes and worsens its effects both in adults and, most alarmingly, in children. Shocked by statistics about the sharp rise in childhood obesity—studies suggest the number of overweight children has, doubled in a decade—she became an anti-junk-food junkie, waging a contentious two-year war to limit the sale of soft drinks and fatty foods, as well as portion sizes, in public elementary and middle schools in California. "A lot of legislators give in when you apply pressure," says Brett McFadden, a lobbyist for the Association of California School Administrators and a fierce opponent of Escutia's bill. "Not Martha. She kept at it."
Her controversial bill, SB19, which became law last October, restricts the sale of sweetened carbonated drinks during lunch and limits the fat content of foods available to kids in school. "One senator told me, 'You have no business telling my child what to eat,'" says Escutia. "That's true, but I do think we have the right to at least give the kids a choice." She kept up the pressure despite a vehement challenge from the soda-vending lobby and a string of nasty editorials depicting her as the food police. One cartoon presented Escutia as wildly overweight. "There were some unconscionable personal attacks," Harold Goldstein, executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, says of Escutia, whom he helped on the bill. "But she never lost focus."
Growing up poor in East Los Angeles, she struggled with her weight. "I ate junk food and didn't exercise," says Escutia, who was raised by her grandparents Ricardo Ovilla, a machinist who died of diabetes in 2000, and Marina, a housewife, now 90. (Her parents divorced when she was a child.) A diligent student in high school, she enrolled at the University of Southern California in 1975. An internship in Washington, D.C., inspired her to get a law degree at Georgetown University and build a practice geared toward helping Mexican-Americans. Through her work she met political consultant Leo Briones; they married in 1994 and had two children, Andres, 7, and Diego, 3. "I liked that she wasn't a knee-jerk liberal," says Briones, 38. "She is true to her convictions."
Escutia won election to the state assembly in 1992 and to the state senate in 1998. She thought passing SB19 would be a "slam dunk," but a representative for school administrators estimated it would cost the state as much as $100 million a year in their cut of profits from food-vending machines on school grounds. "With decreased funding, when a vendor comes in waving a million dollars, it's enticing," says Brett McFadden. "We need to make changes over time." To save the bill, Escutia agreed to exclude high schools and allow vending machines to operate after lunch. The program should be fully implemented by 2004.
Despite her victory, she isn't sure she wants to stay in politics. "This job," she says, "isn't family-friendly." She loves driving her boys to school and daycare but must spend three days a week in Sacramento, away from her four-bed-room hillside home in Whittier. "I don't want to look back," says Escutia, "and say I wasn't there for my family."
Yet she won't give up on junking junk food. "My bill will need constant monitoring to see that it goes through," she says. "I will never let the fight go."
Vicki Sheff-Cahan in Sacramento
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