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Hector Batista: Telling Youths Not To Inhale . . . Smoke Or Eat Junk Food


July 24, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved. 

HECTOR BATISTA wants to stamp out obesity in the New York City schools. He is not an intimidating figure. He is rather unassuming and low key. So one wonders exactly how he will accomplish this feat: persuading schoolchildren to give up sugary drinks and high-fat treats.

But as the executive vice president of the American Cancer Society in the New York City region, Mr. Batista is known for being quietly aggressive, somewhat like a gnat. He swarms around an issue, directing his staff of 215 employees and 2,000 volunteers in the city, in Westchester County and on Long Island, to flood the offices of political leaders with letters and telephone calls.

In the case of tobacco, Mr. Batista was a powerful voice exhorting City Hall and leaders in Albany to ban smoking in most restaurants and public places. They have. Now, with the New York City Council considering a bill to ban the sale of junk food in the schools, he wants to keep up the momentum on obesity.

"I don't plan to let go," Mr. Batista said from his Midtown office the other day, sipping a glass of orange juice and rattling off statistics. Did you know, he asks, that only 1 percent of Americans see the link between obesity and cancer? And did you know that 90,000 people die each year of obesity-related cancer, and that deaths from obesity could soon overtake those from smoking? For that reason, the society has intensified its advocacy efforts.

A city survey released earlier this month found that nearly half the children in the public elementary schools are overweight, and that one in four is obese. The rate of obesity is 31 percent among Hispanic children. Other studies indicate that obesity is rising faster among Hispanics than among any other group.

"This is personal," Mr. Batista says, shaking his head. "It's a community close to my heart." He celebrates his Latino heritage. His father is Dominican, a musician who has a salsa and merengue band; his mother is Puerto Rican. But he says some cultural habits are simply getting the best of his people. "Latinos eating vegetables? Come on," he says, raising his hands in frustration. "We don't eat vegetables. It's rice and beans and meat. It's very natural. We could do it every single day. It's about finding that balance."

For the record, Mr. Batista is 5 foot 8 and weighs 184 pounds. He says he wants to lose 10 pounds, that he is about 40 pounds heavier than he was 19 years ago, when he married his wife, Frances, an administrator at a brokerage firm. They live with their two children in Park Slope, Brooklyn. As far as his family goes, it is his 8-year-old daughter, Katrina, whom he worries about. (He describes his 12-year-old son, Gian, as a finicky eater.) He says she could live off chicken nuggets and fries.

"I have to get my hands around it before it becomes a problem," he says. "I want to make sure when my daughter looks at junk food, she looks at it the same way she looks at tobacco, totally turned off by it."

In his large office, family photographs line the shelves. There are photographs of Katrina, as a baby, and one of her now, a girl in a white communion dress.

Mr. Batista, who has a trim mustache, graying hair and an old-fashioned manner, lights up when he mentions Katrina. He says it is not so easy, even as a top cancer official, to persuade a daughter to eat well.

"She melts me," he says. "She says, `Daddy, why are you punishing me? I'm your princess.' "

As for reaching a broader audience, he wants schools to adopt a 10-point plan to promote better nutrition and more exercise, including a period for stretching, replacing fund-raising efforts that use candy with ones using fruit or gift wrap, and, of course, banning junk food.

Mr. Batista knows that the schools chancellor, Joel I. Klein, has already stated his intention to remove junk food from vending machines, without City Council action. Even so, Mr. Batista says legislation is needed to ensure that change outlasts a political administration.

He has also asked State Assemblyman Felix W. Ortiz, a Democrat from Brooklyn, to hold hearings in each borough on legislation he is sponsoring to place a 1 percent tax on junk food and soft drinks.

"If we don't address this issue now, we are setting up the next cancer victim," Mr. Batista says.


MR. BATISTA, who received a master's degree in public administration from New York University, has spent most of his career in public service. He was the chief of staff and deputy commissioner in the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development, and the economic development adviser to the former Brooklyn borough president, Howard Golden. He joined the cancer society two years ago from Jeffrey M. Brown Associates, a real estate development company that builds stores.

From where he sits now, Mr. Batista says he will know he is winning the war against obesity when young people are as upset about it as he is.

"They're the best advocate," he says. "It's not until the kids begin to fight this that we're hitting close to home."

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