Fast Food Near School Means Fatter Kids

~By Matt Robinson~

There are 530 calories, 18 grams of fat, and 2/3 of the daily value of cholesterol in a bacon, egg, and cheese from Dunkin Donuts.

Diana Blanco doesn’t care. Blanco, 19, a senior at Lehman High School in the Bronx, gets the breakfast sandwich four times a week.

“The reason I come here is because it’s really close,” said Blanco, as she gestured to her school’s main entrance steps right across the street. “I never eat school lunch.”

But having fast food restaurants so close to schools may pose health risks for students. A recent study by University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University found that California 9th graders who attend schools with a fast food restaurant one-tenth of a mile away are 5.2 percent more likely to be obese.

One in six South Bronx public high school students is obese, a number 30 percent higher than the rest of the borough and 42 percent higher than all of New York City, according to a June 2007 report by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Lehman High School, near the Westchester Square section of the southeast Bronx, stands near several fast food restaurants. Besides the Dunkin Donuts in front, 40 classrooms on the western wing overlook the track, football field and a White Castle.  A little bit further down the street, the crown of Burger King looms.

All students but freshmen are allowed to leave school grounds for lunch, said Delma Sosa, the community health organizer at Lehman.

“They have a short amount of time for lunch. So they run out and whatever is closest, they eat,” said Sosa, who works for Montefiore Medical Center and visits the school every Monday.

Chris Hernandez, 16, a freshman at Lehman High School, doesn’t like most of his school lunch options.

“I just buy cookies,” he said. So after school, he bounces from one fast food restaurant to another.

Students are more familiar with White Castle sliders (their miniature burgers) than Brussels sprouts and many other vegetables, said Sosa, who introduces new fruits and vegetables weekly to the 30 members of the school’s health club. Sosa says some students come for the free produce and others enjoy learning new healthy recipes.

“It’s not that they don’t want fruits and vegetables. They just don’t have the option,” Sosa said.

In 2008, the New York City Department of City Planning initiated the Supermarket Need Index (SNI) to determine the neighborhoods with the highest levels of diet-related diseases and the largest populations with limited opportunities to purchase fresh foods. Three million New Yorkers live in these areas, including parts of the South Bronx and the Williamsbridge, Wakefield and Pelham Parkway areas of the Central Bronx.

In many of these communities, healthy eating is too expensive.  At Lehman, 3,599 out of the 4,322 students qualify for free or reduced lunch, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

A 2008 report by the Public Health Association of New York City, says “calorie-for-calorie, unhealthy foods cost less than healthy ones. Since unhealthy food is cheaper, low-income families are often forced to choose items that can lead to health problems over time.”

The abundance of fast food restaurants, especially near schools, makes the problem worse, nutrition advocates say.

“They are predatory. They try to get them young. They purposely locate themselves next to schools,” said Amie Hamlin, Executive Director at the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food.

To help combat this type of marketing, Hamlin’s coalition helps children understand food labels.  A pilot program provides a plant-based lunch menu for students at Future Leaders Institute K-8, a charter school in Harlem. The program also includes nutritional education in the classroom and cooking demos for parents. Hamlin hopes other schools will adopt the program.

“We need to make an environment so all choices are healthy choices,” said Hamlin.

“Parents come up to me and say, “My child always reads the label now. If they see partially hydrogenated oil, they put it back on the shelf,” she said.

Schools can help students make better choices, said Nick Freudenberg, Director of the Public Health program at Hunter College.  They can implement “healthy eating zones,” which parallel the no-smoking zones from a generation ago, he said. These zones would be located around schools and community centers and not allow any vending machines with sugary drinks or any advertisements of unhealthy foods.

Many aging schools, Freudenberg noted, don’t fix broken water fountains. But fixing these fountains and adding more water coolers could help curb soda drinking.

At Lehman, Sosa is working to establish a New York City Green Cart right outside the school. The carts only sell fresh produce like whole carrots, bananas, apples and berries. Sosa hopes these healthy options will have more students forgoing White Castle’s onion rings (540 calories) and picking up an apple for less than a dollar (only 80 calories).

Changing the eating habits of this young, obese community will come about only by changing the culture, according to Hamlin.

“We have to find a way to make a healthy diet hip,” Hamlin said.

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