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Commentary | VOICES / A FORUM FOR COMMUNITY ISSUES

Campuses Awash in Junk Foods

October 12, 2002|DAN KIMBER

At the high school where I teach, the day begins with the sound of semi trucks offloading tons of junk food for the daily consumption of our students. Miles away in Sacramento, academic standards are forged and pounded into the curriculum of our underperforming schools. It occurs to many of us who work in the trenches that those pictures ought to be linked.

Some districts (most recently Los Angeles Unified) have banned soda machines from their campuses. It's a good start. No question that our students are getting fatter and more lethargic. Young teens are wolfing down mass quantities of junk food--not just before and after school but between classes, at lunch and at "nutrition break." Common sense and nutritional standards have given way to the laws of supply and demand.

Obesity has become our nation's No. 1 health problem. Yet our schools, rather than working to combat that trend, have become a major contributor to it.

My district, like so many others, has negotiated long-term contracts with the soda and chips and candy companies. We get money for our choral program, for athletic equipment and for art supplies while companies like Coke and Pepsi and Frito-Lay get to put their machines in virtually every corner of our campuses.

Lunch, for a good number of our students, now consists of two bags of Flamin' Hot Cheetos, a Coke and a Snickers bar.

A few years ago there were five of these machines at our school. Now we have more than 20. Every month or so another one is delivered, always after hours.

Despite recent findings of clogged arteries and high cholesterol levels in 15-year-olds and despite studies linking the early onset of diabetes, heart disease and osteoporosis with teen diets that consist mainly of sugar, salt and fat, the deals are struck. The money is too good to pass up. The vendors seek a new generation of customers and have no interest in the harm their products do to young people. School districts are desperate to fund programs. As long as they get the computers and the (extra large) band uniforms, the junk food companies get to continue mining the youthful mother lode. Everyone wins!

Those of us who have a front-row seat see it differently. We deal daily with lethargy and diminished attention spans and conjure a correlation between a morning and afternoon regimen of chips and Coke and gum and candy and doughnuts and a lack of mental exertion.

In 1983, a landmark report called "A Nation at Risk" addressed the mediocrity that had crept into education. "We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament," it asserted, adding that if a foreign country had done this, it would have been interpreted as an act of war.

This time the enemy is corporate greed and its allies in financially strapped school districts, as well as an indifferent public and unwatchful parents. Given the scope of this invasion and the fact that children are specifically targeted, strong leadership in high places is needed.

Will our physically fit president be persuaded to move against the soda-chips-candy axis? Or will he be true to his belief in everyone's unfettered right to make a buck? Will any of these profit-driven vendors--corporate giants all--be willing to lead an exodus from our nation's schools, realizing that the business of America is seeing to its future generations as well as its current economy?

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Dan Kimber is a teacher at Hoover High School in the Glendale Unified School District.

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