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January 09, 2004
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ARCHIVE: Junk Food

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Students went back to slightly healthier schools this week. They found vegetarian meals as one of their daily choices for the first time and missing from the menu were the fried doughnuts. But the district is still serving fast food, and soft drinks that contribute to the most common medical problem for children today - obesity.

The school food chain has always started at the district's Central Kitchen: A big windowless where house behind the Orleans Casino. It used to boil giant fresh pots of spaghetti, hundreds of gallons of sauce and truck it to schools for hungry kids here - that was 33 years ago when they only needed the capacity to feed 4,500 hundred students.

Today it's 86,000 hungry mouths to feed. In order to keep up, this same building has been converted to mostly cold storage, and is mechanically pumping out 45,000 meals a day. Workers wearing white robes brush elbows in two production lines and rarely speak. On Tuesday they were focusing on filling molded plastic containers with beef fingers, carrots and a fruit snack today at a feverish rate: One meal every second. Chuck Peterson, supervises them:

Because of the small square footage we have in here, the people have to work real close together and there is just not enough room to move around and the flow of our product could be improved greatly if had a larger better designed facility.

Sitting behind a computer wearing a clean black Caterpillar tractor hat, he says the district is working on getting a new facility with a production line that can work 3 to 4 times faster. Sue Hoggan, Clark County Area Supervisor would like to cook more food on site and then chill it and truck it to schools instead of sending out pre-packaged foods.

I think eventually we would like to have a cook-chill operation where we can prepare more food on site as we did in the old days. We have had to go to a pre-packaged frozen food simply because of limits of the production space.

She says these frozen meals are low fat and meet national nutrition requirements. But so did the fried doughnuts the district used to serve. Nonetheless, they've replaced the doughnuts with baked cinnamon rolls slathered with butter, sugar and frosting, and want to serve oatmeal bars as a healthy alternative. Serving frozen and baked instead of fried food is probably the healthiest of the compromises the district has made in order to serve its growing population. Two thirds of students don't eat food from this facility. They eat what the individual schools provide.

It's hard in some of those schools with the short amount of time that the kids have to eat to prepare that many meals. Ha, ha, ha! You know? It takes a lot of pressure off the manager if she can order in the pizza. And that gives the kids another choice for the combo.

Students at lunch at Bonanza High School for instance have a choice of eating Pizza Hut, Port of Subs and Blimpies sandwiches for instance. Under the National School Lunch program chips and soda can't be sold in the lunchroom during lunch, but vending machines are right inside and unmonitored here. Larry Shaps is Assistant Principal at Bonanza.

Well I just learned that the students are continuing to eat junk food to be honest with you. I think it is just easy to stick down their thoughts to be honest with you.

He blames the consumption of fast food on parents for not teaching kids better eating habits. He wonders what would happen if schools had the capacity to offer only healthy food.

We do have a captive audience. If that is all we had we would probably have less children eating but the ones who did would probably have a healthier snack.

Right outside the lunchroom students are buying meals of Doritos, sodas and pop-corn chicken labeled as munchies. Everyone's sucking on the mouth of a plastic soda bottle and eating chips like this boy who's eating junk food because its here. I spoke to him:

You like 'em?

Your parents give you the money to eat that?

Ya.

Ya, you think it's good for you?

No.

What would you rather eat?

Nothing.

Nothing may be better than junk food according to a report this week by the American Association of Pediatrics. It recognized that sales of junk food like soda is a significant source of school revenue, but at the same time soft drinks are also the primary contributor to childhood obesity. Balancing the pros and cons it recommended schools stop selling soda.

Meanwhile as the bell rings at Bonanza, the wind carries pizza hut wrappers across the courtyard past the symbols of childhood obesity - empty soda bottles.

Ky Plaskon, News 889 KNPR

The Clark County School District is welcoming part-time food servers to assist at schools during lunch-time. For more information, call 799-8123 extension 207.

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