Fries and Pizza After Class Beat Out the Menu at School

by Amanda Staab

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Fast food lures students after school. Photo by Amanda Staab

For some students in the South Bronx, the 3 p.m. bell doesn’t necessarily mean it’s time to go home. Instead, it signals lunchtime for many teens at Morris High School in Morrisania.

Dozens of students, who often skip both breakfast and lunch, make their way toward 165th Street to the nearest Chinese restaurant conveniently serving up French fries, their favorite, or cross Boston Road to a deli advertising fried chicken and pizza.

“This is not healthy, having this all the time after school, but it tastes better than what we are getting at school,” said senior Sereane Swanson, holding books in her arms while she waited for two friends to finish their fries, drenched with ketchup and barbecue sauce and reeking of grease.

Most of the teens appear to be healthy, but obesity is a growing problem in the Bronx. One third of high school students and two thirds of adults are either overweight or obese, according to the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Though they may not want to believe it, the students, especially those with a junk food habit, are not immune to high cholesterol and hypertension.

“It’s not long before they’ll start having their heart attacks and their strokes,” said Alicia Flynn, a nutritionist at the nearby Bronx-Lebanon Hospital Center. She often helps teen clients find healthier ways to snack and eat meals.

The Bloomberg administration has also tried to do its part and support initiatives to encourage New Yorkers to eat better. In addition to targeting trans fats in public restaurants, the city has made changes to food in schools. In the past two years, student lunches have experienced a makeover that included less fat and sodium and more whole grains.

But many teens say they just don’t eat the food even though half the high school students in the South Bronx are eligible for a free or reduced lunch.

“It’s nasty,” said senior Malaysia Scott, who’ll only eat the French fries.

Another student, sophomore Raul Lopez, said he usually only eats the pizza or chicken fingers. But, he admitted, he prefers fatty foods.

Still, other students said they can get fruits and vegetables in their cafeteria, even if they are required to fill up a full tray of food they don’t necessarily want in order to get them.

“Even though it’s a waste of food, you have to get a tray,” said sophomore Diamond Carothers. Students take what they intended to get and throw away the rest.

This strikes a chord with Flynn. She’s not sure how much food is wasted in Bronx schools, but, she said, “if someone can calculate it, then we have something to yell and scream about.”

In addition to teaching kids the value of what they throw away, Flynn said schools might consider inviting private vendors into their cafeterias to offer students healthy meals, maybe even ethnic foods that they just might like, in exchange for vouchers.

“Food is food,” said senior Juan Vasquez. “You can’t waste it. If you’re hungry, you got to eat. It’s unhealthy to not eat when you’re hungry.”

That  attitude is precisely the root of the obesity problem among young people in the Bronx, said Flynn. “When you skip meals, you throw your metabolism off, you slow it down,” she said. This makes it easier to gain weight and harder to lose it, which can put a teenager on the road to obesity.

In an effort to promote more healthy eating, the Bloomberg administration recently put more restrictions on school bake sales, which traditionally helped student raise money for extracurricular activities and trips. The move angers some students. “I would like to keep them,” said junior Aaron Heatley. “It brings more money to the school for funding.” The restrictions, which are being implemented this year,  allow schools to have one bake sale a month as long as it takes place after lunch and raises money for the Parent-Teacher Associations and other parent groups. Between sales, said Heatley, the kids will just have to sell candy instead.

Even Flynn doesn’t think the restriction is helpful. The bake sales teach kids to work together for a common cause, she said, and having dessert once in a while isn’t such a bad thing. “As a nutritionist, I say go ahead and have your cake, just know how much you can have,” said Flynn.

The city also plans to make healthful improvements to the snack selection in vending machines at schools. Students said they don’t know many classmates who can afford to use the vending machines too often, but it might be a good start to getting kids on track to better health.

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