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Al Martinez

When money walks in the door, seaweed sandwiches go out the window. : Notes From a Potato Chip Plant

May 16, 1985|AL MARTINEZ

Generations from now, when historians consider the plight of a nation of people with bad skin and rotten teeth, they will look back in anger at those involved in the production and sale of junk food.

The historians will focus special blame on the 1985 Los Angeles school board for having encouraged the proliferation of garbage snacks among our young people. And, God forgive us, they'll be right. We have returned, in a way, to Sugar Pop education.

Up until a few days ago, L.A. could view with pride a policy that forbade the sale of carbonated beverages, potato chips, chewing gum and certain other inedibles on the city's high school campuses.

But then just this week, lightning struck. Board member Tom Bartman, trapped between good health and free enterprise, led a successful effort to allow the return of carbonated beverages to the schools, swayed by arguments that the ban was costing student activity funds $5,000 in profits each year.

Bartman, a conservative from Van Nuys, understood that kind of logic. When money walks in the door, seaweed sandwiches go out the window.

As a result, the board lifted its five-year ban on soft drinks, and student activists are vowing to continue the fight against the prohibition of other junk foods.

The kids maintain it is their essential American right to OD on Cheese Puffs if they want to. Remove that right and you pave the way for more serious restrictions on double-burgers and dog-food burritos, thereby undermining what our forefathers gave their lives to uphold.

Well, no, they didn't die fighting for Big Macs exactly, but the principle is the same.

I never faced this as a kid. I was poor and got free lunches and was expected to eat whatever was put in front of me. Bowls filled with a gray substance that contained ground meat of suspicious origin.

There were no nutritional standards then and not even a hint of student rights. Before we could eat, a teacher checked to see if each of us had clean fingernails.

"Cleanliness," old lady Monlux used to say with a chicken hawk glare, "is next to godliness." Godless people, we came to learn, did not eat.

Those were the days before the courts declared that checking fingernails was unconstitutional, along with praying, hymn-singing and forcing students to stay sober from periods one through six.

We ate what they gave us, did what they told us, learned a respect for the language and mastered reading. What fools we were.

Kids are smarter today. No one's going to tell them they have to read if they don't want to. If reading were essential to life, would God have created television?

They view with similar disdain any effort to restrict their eating habits, contending with some effectiveness that a can of salt-free, sugar-free, caffeine-free Diet Pepsi is probably no worse for you than a gin and tonic without lime.

I discussed nutrition with some of them during a recent lunch hour. They had gathered in the parking lot of a shopping center across from Taft High.

Three of the students, two boys and a girl, represented what must be a health nut's vision of hell.

Collectively they were smoking two cigarettes, drinking one beer and eating a combination of glazed doughnuts, taco chips and a liquidy meat substance I wasn't able to identify. It was compressed in a roll and seeped out the sides.

The boys said it didn't make no difference what the school board did because they could get whatever they wanted right there in the shopping center. One guessed he could live his entire life in the shopping center and want for nothing.

The girl, who was the one with the beer and a cigarette, replied that although she was glad the board had taken that action, it didn't affect her one way or the other since she never ate lunch anyhow. Health had nothing to do with it. She wanted to look right.

She was the more interesting of the three, not for what she had to say but because there are few among us blessed with the ability to smoke, drink, chew gum and talk at the same time.

"What do you eat at other times?" I asked, transfixed by the precise coordination of all those muscles in play. It was like watching Reggie Jackson swing a bat.

"Hot dogs," she replied.

One of the boys almost gagged on his unidentifiable meat sandwich. "You know what's in a hot dog?" he demanded. "Hog noses and chicken claws!"

The girl replied with an expletive which, along with dirty fingernails, was also not allowed in my school.

The boy shrugged. "It's your guts," he said.

I emerged from the encounter feeling the school board was right in lifting the soft drink ban and probably ought to eliminate the restrictions on other junk foods as well.

It might be time to concentrate more on what goes into their heads than on what goes into their stomachs, and to check them for dirty fingernails along the way.

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