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Published: Tuesday, 8/16/2011

COMMENTARY

School cafeterias breeding grounds for obesity

I still remember when my high school cafeteria began offering fast food.

It wasn't real fast food of course, but the sort of facsimile you would expect from a high school cafeteria. Hamburgers with a more authentic texture than flavor (and color, to tell the truth). French fries that at least looked like the real thing -- that being (to my teenage eyes) those skinny fries from McDonald's. Genuine soft drinks from a fountain.

Even at the time, it seemed like a bad idea. Given the choice between quasi-fast food and the regular cafeteria offerings of the local schools, it was obvious that a lot of the students would head straight to the quasi-fast food.

This was before the obesity epidemic that has wrapped its doughy grip around American teens. But looking back, it might have been the start of it.

I was certainly no health-food purist at the time. I ate my share of McDonald's, and far, far more than my share of tacos from a place called Taco Casa. I was on the friendliest of terms with Doritos and Hostess Fruit Pies. But even I thought that making fast food available to high school kids on a daily basis was akin to dishing up heroin to junkies.

Soon, a significant portion of the student body was downing burgers, fries, and Cokes -- many of the kids, if not most, partaking every day of the school year.

It is easy to see why. The Cincinnati Public Schools did many things well, but cooking food was not one of them. The green beans had been simmering since the Eisenhower administration, then dredged across a salt lick. The meatloaf was topped with a squiggle of something bright red, possibly melted crayons. Worst of all was what was known as a pizzaburger, which was an English muffin topped with tomato sauce, burnt fake Parmesan cheese, and grayish-greenish bits of something that was almost certainly not meat.

But even such unpalatable offerings as these had to be healthier for us than what was served in the fast-food line. Aside from the pizzaburger, I mean.

All of which is brought to mind by recent developments in the school-food world. One of these developments is happening just downstate, where next month the only chocolate milk offered by schools in Dayton and Cincinnati will be fat-free.

Fat-free chocolate milk? That seems like attacking the wrong problem. Whole milk only has about 60-65 more calories per cup than nonfat milk, and still-growing teens should be encouraged to drink milk even if it is flavored with chocolate.

The bigger problem, according to an article published last year in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, is the easy availability of vending machines in schools.

Schools didn't have vending machines when I was a teen (and we wrote on the blackboard with actual chalk too). The machines' ubiquity in schools and their selection of addictive treats make them a temptation too strong for most kids to avoid.

The study looked at more than 4,300 middle school students throughout Florida, asking how many of them had skipped lunch and instead bought a snack or a drink from a vending machine for at least two of the last five days. The answer was a shock: Eighteen percent. Nearly one in five bought something from a vending machine instead of having lunch at least twice in just the last five days.

And although the vending machines offer healthier options, the students tended to ignore those in favor of potato chips (which were bought most often), followed by pretzels and crackers, candy bars, soft drinks, and sport drinks. Meanwhile, the school cafeterias, with their chicken patties and their sloppy joes, were sitting unused.

First impressions are lasting, and the lessons we learn as children often stay with us for our entire lives. If kids learn to take their meals as high-fat, high-sugar treats from a vending machine, they are going to have trouble when they get older.

Contact Daniel Neman at dneman@theblade.com or 419-724-6155.



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