No Breakfast, Honey Buns and Doritos for Dinner: What Kids Are Eating in North Miami

I taught English at a middle school in North Miami for a year. Every day I saw young tweens munching on hot Cheetos at 8:30 in the morning, and hustling over to the McDonald's a block away as soon as the bell rang. I knew their diets were dismal, but I hoped that somewhere between the greasy wrappers of their afternoon fast food fixes and the chip bags they toted in for mid-morning snacks that there were at least a few servings of fruits and vegetables doled out at home. Unfortunately, it seems that I was wrong.

I returned to this school last week to have an informal interview with a handful of students to see exactly what they eat on a typical day. I've decided not to mention the school's name because I do not want to imply that the institution alone is to blame for the poor nutrition of its students. I know its administrators and teachers, some of whom are vegans. One enlightened staff member has become an advocate for healthy eating and even orchestrated a student-created and maintained garden on school grounds.

But the school has a lot of hurdles to overcome. It serves a low income community, and many of the students' parents are Haitian immigrants who aren't home much because they work two or three jobs. Many of the children have been through a lot: some are foster children; many others live with grandma or a cousin because their own parents are out of the picture for a variety of reasons. In 2011, only 25 percent of the eighth grade class passed the FCAT in reading, 15 percent in science, and 48 in Math. Feeding kids well does not appear to make the list of priorities when keeping the whole system from unraveling is in itself a struggle.

The school generously granted me an hour to talk to five well mannered eighth graders about food, starting with every morsel they had eaten the day before. Here is what they said.

Breakfast - nothing
Lunch - chicken nuggets
After school - two honey buns and fruit punch
Dinner - spaghetti with meatballs and tomato sauce and Minute Maid punch

Breakfast - nothing
Snack - Minute Maid fruit punch
Lunch - chicken nuggets
After school - soda, Doritos, and Airheads candy
Dinner - Fruity Pebbles, oatmeal, and watermelon

Breakfast - nothing
Lunch - chicken nuggets and juice
After school - potato chips, two honey buns, soda and juice
Dinner - macaroni and cheese

Breakfast - nothing
Lunch - honey chicken and white rice
Dinner - more honey chicken and white rice

Breakfast - wheat toast with grape jelly and fruit punch
Lunch - chicken nuggets, mashed potatoes and milk
Dinner - macaroni with broccoli bits and Malta soda
Dessert - fruit snacks

To summarize, these kids are living on hydrogenated oils, high fructose corn syrup, white flour, and sugar. Collectively, the five students ate a total of less than one serving of vegetables over the course of the day, and about one serving of fruit. Each girl who ate two honey buns consumed 1,000 calories, 52 grams of fat (82 percent of an adult's daily value), and 22 grams of saturated fat (110 percent of an adult's daily value) through those "snacks" alone. The chicken nuggets most of the kids ate were served at school added another 30 grams of fat, five of them saturated. The Minute Maid "juice" the students said they drink daily actually contains 5 percent fruit juice; the first ingredient after water is high fructose corn syrup. Obviously, the soda is even worse.

I tried to just ask questions and refrain from admonishing or expressing shock, but I couldn't help but inform the kids that they were very efficiently carving themselves a direct path to obesity, type II diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. I realize that these 13-year-olds are being charged with the task of finding food for themselves, and the vendors who pull their junk food trucks up to the school at 3:30 and the fast food joints that have set up shop within easy walking distance have made it exceedingly easy for them to create for themselves a steady diet of the worst foods in the world.

Their response let me know that they're aware that they're not eating well, and that they feel like their unhealthy habits are encouraged by a lacking school lunch program and big business.

"There are all these ads," Jeffry complained. "Once I remember McDonald's offered a deal where you buy one Big Mac and you get the second one for a penny. That's so cheap. And then sometimes fast food places advertise free fries. Even I walked all the way from my house to get those."

Not surprisingly, they're already addicted to the sugary, fatty, and salty flavors they're inundated with. Changing these habits, reconditioning these taste buds that have become accustomed to lab-engineered flavor explosions, will not be easy. To illustrate, when seriously contemplating the prospect of changing her diet for the healthier, Nielsen expressed a fearful reluctance.

"But Miss, you can't eat too healthy all the time," she said.

I told her not to worry; she was in absolutely no danger of that.

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