Students' junk-food habits threaten health, learning

I recently encountered an attractive 17-year-old senior at a food machine on an Eastside high school campus. It was late afternoon and she was choosing her sixth fast food of the day.
I'm not kidding.

And this student is not alone in her eating habits. Thousands of kids across the country are making fast foods a staple of their daily lives at the expense of the nutritious food they need if they are to have healthy futures.

In California and across the country, the issue is causing great alarm among teachers and educators. Many schools, struggling with rising costs and expenses, have contracted with Pepsi Cola and other companies to bring in drinks, chips, candy and ice cream to help with their finances.

Lorraine Guerin, director of planning in the superintendent's office of the Eastside Union School District, acknowledges there are 146 Pepsi machines at Eastside schools, the Adult Education office and the Education Center alone. Add to that 44 snack machines at 10 campuses and in the district office and you get the picture.

Reported commissions from the Pepsi machineslast year were $396,573.58, which wasdistributed among the schools based on the amount of product sold at each.

These machines offer up the cola drink, "fruit" drinks and assorted snacks. Additional commissions from other snack machines totaled $47,806.66.

The Pepsi money goes toward extracurricular activities such as sports, bands, the performing arts and school clubs. The money from other snack machines is distributed to Food Service, which prepares and serves school lunches, and the schools.

The district says it is not aware of any complaints from parents about the junk food's availability.

But according to concerned educators, there are multiple problems with the food and drinks in these machines. Excess sugar can lead to diabetes. It also hits the kids with a sugar high, followed by an emotional drop that lasts several hours.

It also affects their concentration, learning abilities and behavior, says Bob Nichols, a 35-year teacher in the Campbell Union School District and a California Teachers Association director.

Some students drink several 20-ounce bottles of caffeinated drinks a day, thus impairing "their ability to concentrate, to process and to retain," says Mr. Nichols.

Agreeing with Mr. Nichols are Nick Leon, a retired teacher, and Bill Mustanich, who directs the Healthy Start project at Andrew Hill High School. Both are seriously concerned about the future health of their students.

"Osteoporosis is no longer an older woman's disease," says Mr. Leon. "Recent studies have shown that high school girl athletes are suffering more broken bones because they lack sufficient calcium. Students are substituting caffeine sodas for calcium-rich drinks.
"What kind of parent would allow and encourage a child to eat and drink junk food, knowing it leads to obesity, adult onset diabetes and osteoporosis?" asks Mr. Leon. "Why would a society knowingly hurt children?"

Today, Type 2 diabetes, once thought of as an adult onset disease, is creeping into the lives of our children and youth at an epidemic level, according to a report by Dr. Christine Ternand of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, shared with me by Paula Clinton, a registered dietitian at the Diabetes Society of Santa Clara County.

Recent statistics from the Center for Disease Control indicate the percentage of overweight children and adolescents has more than doubled in the past 30 years. Of young people ages 6 to 17, about 5.3 million, or 12.5 percent, are seriously overweight. Many teachers and educators fear for the futures of these children.

Mr. Mustanich encouraged me to look at what six servings of junk food could mean to our young student mentioned above. A 20-ounce bottle of Pepsi supposedly has 2.5 servings. We know better. No one drinks half a bottle, so that's 47.5 grams of sugar. Add a bottle of Fruit Works' Peach Papaya, a "real fruit" beverage. Look at the small print. To begin with, it has only 5 percent fruit juice, plus 70 grams of sugar. Another fruit drink, Paradise Blend, has 58 grams of sugar; a small package of mini-donuts, 26 grams; Peanut M&Ms, 25 grams; and one ice cream bar, 22 grams.

That's a rousing total of 223 grams of sugar, plus 64 grams of fat from the little donut package, the Peanut M&Ms and the ice cream bar. Any wonder many are concerned about student health?

Not all kids eat that much junk food. A slightly overweight young girl says she eats only one item a day. With junk units costing 89 cents to $1.25 each, it's all she can afford. Another says she eats less than that. Others admit to several fast-food items a day.

Pepsi and the school districts are making money, but at whose expense?

State Sen. Martha Escutia's bill, SB19, recently signed by Gov. Gray Davis, tries to get junk food out of the schools. The bill succeeds in keeping such food out of grammar schools and restricts middle schools from selling carbonated beverages until after lunch, but Sen. Escutiais still concerned.

"If we really want to instill healthy eating habits in our children, we need to make sure all our schools, from kindergarten through high school, are safe havens where young people have lots of healthy options and aren't constantly having Snickers, Doritos and Pepsi Cola hawked to them."

It's time we put our children first when it comes to junk food. We need new avenues of school financing, but our first priority is not only to educate our children, but to raise them to be healthy adults.

CHRISTI WELTER is a freelance writer based in San Jose.

© 2001 American City Business Journals Inc.