Adults may doubt the allure of Frito pie, but when some students at Juneau-Douglas High School encounter a pile of corn chips covered with canned chili and topped with a steaming squirt of processed cheese, they find it irresistible.
"I'd rather have something that tastes good than something that is healthy," said Kyle Deloach, 15, as he munched his second chili-chips-and-cheese pie in a week, washing it down with a swig from a 20-ounce orange soda during a recent lunch period.
Though the tastiness of his lunch selection is debatable, Deloach is right that the choice is not particularly healthy. His pie packs 710 calories, half of which are derived from the pie's 42 grams of fat. It also contains more sodium than government nutritionists recommend an adult consume in one day. And, the 20-ounce soda carries the equivalent of 17 teaspoons of added sugar versus the 10 teaspoon daily allowance recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
But, Deloach said, he doesn't think too much about nutrition. He eats like this a few times a week because it's convenient and because the food tastes good. In the absence of attractive menu options, every lunch period at JDHS sees about 50 students eating a meal identical to Deloach's, while another 250 are gulping down combinations of nachos, Domino's pizza, and cheese pretzels purchased from Mac's Cache, the school store that sells snacks to make money for school activities.
Not all students at JDHS are eating Frito pie. Mac's Cache can supply enough food for only about 2O percent of the student body. Students who don't bring a lunch leave campus to find food that's fast and cheap. Favored selections include fries from Rick's Cafe and deep-fried chicken strips from the deli at Alaskan & Proud market.
A study published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported 64.5 percent of the population is overweight. The study also showed that obesity in America is on the rise, with a 15 percent increase in the number of overweight Americans since a similar study was done in 1994.
The surgeon general long has acknowledged that fat teenagers have a 70 percent to 80 percent chance of becoming fat adults. One of the main culprits in America's obesity epidemic, researchers say, is processed food, like canned chili, chips, and orange nacho cheese.
Though not all students may be eating food from Mac's Cache, a dietary constant for students is soda. JDHS vending machines, stocked with Pepsi and Coke products, sold 67,000 beverages last year, the majority of them caffeinated, carbonated and sweetened with corn syrup.
The school does offer an alternative lunch program that includes milk and that meets with government standards for nutrition. Only 10 students regularly eat the government-approved lunch available daily in the nurse's office.
Changing school lunch habits for the high school crowd is not a simple task. Aside from providing meals that are nutritious and more attractive than junk food, the district also must figure out how to prepare and transport the meals - and finance the program.
Students who buy junk food at JDHS are, ironically, helping to pay for an opportunity to exercise. If the school district were to do away with vending machines and Mac's Cache, the high school would lose between $15,000 and $20,000 of annual revenue used to support school sports and activities.
"We need to work on our food service program to make it attractive and nutritious," said Superintendent Gary Bader. "We are looking for additional funds and looking for ways to commission a study. We need to know what the cost of bringing the kitchens and the other facilities would be."
Bader said future school lunch discussions would take into account the lost activity funding, but the funding loss would not be the most central concern.
After the renovation, JDHS will have a kitchen, which will allow the school to offer a more comprehensive lunch program if funding can be secured to hire staff. There has been discussion, too, Bader said, about building a kitchen in the proposed Mendenhall Valley high school big enough to prepare food for the entire district. The design and budget for the proposed high school currently do not include such a large kitchen.
At a School Board meeting in September, member Stan Ridgeway, since elected to the Juneau Assembly, suggested that money left in this year's budget be appropriated to a consultant who might begin to study restructuring the school lunch program districtwide. In the end, the board voted to use leftover funds to buy equipment for the JDHS auto mechanic's program and help with a budget shortfall at the Juneau Community Charter School, promising to revisit the lunch issue later.
At that meeting, board member Deana Darnall, who works at the student health clinic, called the state of school nutrition in the Juneau district "horrendous."
Kevin Hamrick, who oversees Mac's Cache, thinks hired dietitians likely are a waste of money. He said he's tried to sell healthy foods such as salad, but like the district meals sold at the nurse's office, students aren't buying. The school also offers a more healthy stir-fry option, but it is consumed primarily by teachers. A weekly baked-potato special is somewhat popular, but students often top the spuds with processed cheese.
Federal school lunch standards:
Fat: 28 grams
Sodium: 1,650 milligrams
Percentage of calories from fat: 30
42 g fat
2,155 mg sodium
Percent of calories from fat: 53
25 g fat
830 mg sodium
Percent calories from fat: 44
1 piece pepperoni pizza:
20 g fat
1,300 mg sodium
Percent calories from fat: 32
Pretzel with cheese:
11 g fat
892 mg sodium
Percent calories from fat: 19
"We've really battled with this nutrition thing," Hamrick said. "We've tried apples, we've tried oranges, but we've had to discontinue them because they wouldn't sell."
Hamrick said the larger issue is not what's being offered, it is what teens choose - when given a choice.
High school students certainly are not choosing the district's "official" lunches that meet with nutritional standards. Their popularity seems to decrease as students get older partly, school officials say, because getting a lunch supplied by the district is associated with being low-income. Several hundred grade-schoolers and middle school students, the majority of them on the federal free and reduced lunch program, receive the lunches, conspicuously packaged in brown paper bags.
"There seems to be a stigma attached to them," Darnall said. "You have all these lunches sitting there and you go out and there are the kids eating pretzels with cheese."
The school lunch is prepared by Glacier Restaurant Lounge and Catering under a contract held by the Eurest Corp., a multinational purveyor of, among other things, airline meals and hospital cafeteria food.
The district lunch program, which requires students to order in advance, offers hot and cold lunches for about $3, including milk. Entrees include sandwiches and more popular hot items like "cheesy fish sticks" and corn dogs. Every meal comes with raw vegetables and fruit or applesauce. Because the program meets federal standards, the district is reimbursed for most of the cost of providing it.
According to Ella Rogers, general manager for Juneau operations at Glacier Restaurant Lounge and Catering, students like hot lunch entrees best, and prefer meals that contain recognizable commercial products such as Milano cookies, Cheetos or a sweet treat called a "ProBall." "Uncrustables," commercially produced crustless "dumplings" made of white bread filled with peanut butter and jelly, are a huge hit, she said. Like a toy in a McDonald's Happy Meal, commercially advertised items provide an attractive lure to sell the lunch.
"If they get the lunch to get (the treat)," Rogers said, "maybe they'll eat the carrots, too."
A similar theory can be applied to high school students choosing a Frito pie and Coke, which costs $3.50, over a cheaper district lunch of, for example, a chicken and bean burrito, celery sticks and a cinnamon bun. Students have seen ads for Fritos and Coke, and these commercially branded items are hip. In high school, hipness is huge.
"Brand recognition is very huge with school lunches," said Kathleen Wayne, dietitian and program coordinator for child nutrition with the state. "This generation of students is very brand-loyal, whether it be clothes or music. School lunch is a business."
In her book, "Food Politics," New York University professor Marion Nestle argues that marketing junk food to teenagers is a lucrative way for businesses to snag customers who will continue to chose their products long after graduation.
"There is a huge amount of immediate financial return to the companies and, in addition, the advertising influences young impressionable people to establish lifetime brand loyalties," Nestle said.
According to "Food Politics," PepsiCo alone spends $1.3 billion a year targeting 8-to-12-year-olds and over time that marketing has been successful. Between 1985 and 1997, milk consumption in schools decreased by 30 percent.
To compete with commercially advertised processed foods, Wayne suggested that schools offer more food choices to students and provide more education about nutrition and fitness.
All JDHS students are required to attend a health class in which they study healthy eating. JDHS health teacher Nancy Seamount said students generally understand the risks associated with a diet high in fat, sugar and salt, and that for at least a few weeks after the nutrition unit they watch their diets. She endorses a more aggressive health campaign that markets nutrition with the same vigor that junk food companies market their products.
"Maybe we need something a little negative," Seamount said. "Like if there were a TV screen near the line where they are waiting (to buy junk food), and you could see a person's heart encased in fat."
Julia O'Malley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.