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

Categories: Beet Reporter
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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.

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

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

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

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

Jeffry:
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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5 comments
Ebf
Ebf

It starts at home. As you pointed out, home isn't always the most stable environment for these kids. QED.

Juan
Juan

Way to create a victim mentality.  For the amount of money spent buying cheap junk, those kids could stock up on rice, beans, chicken, ect. and cook their own meals.  The only blame for eating unhealthily rests with those children and their parents.  Maybe you should of spent more time teaching those kids to be more accountable for their actions and poor nutrition. There's a serious copt-out when you blame government institutions and "big-business."  People go to fast food joints because they are cheap, quick and convenient.  They'd rather not spend an hour cooking their dinner and lunch for the next day.  Keep the liberal, hanky-stomping, cry-me-a-river sentiments where they belong.

Kim
Kim

Kids not being educated on hygiene, math, science, and nutrition is not some cry-me-a-river liberal sentiment.  We are in the middle of a health epidemic.  Sure, you listed some of the "reasons" people go to fast food places.  Government institutions that are responsible for education should educate.  And educate health and offer truly healthy options, maybe encourage them like they encourage healthy study habits, and pursuing career health.  Taking care of one's body is as important as taking care of the mind.  On a republican note, unless I get a discount on my insurance for eating healthy, these bad choices these children and everyone else makes cost me money.  On a caring, human note, seeing children suffer because of the cocktail of ignorance at home, marketing of junkfood in close proximity, and a lifetime of being fed addictive food filled with flavor enhancers makes me really sad.  Kinda like your crappy and useless attitude.  Just sad. But, please don't act like a victim of Camille's well written and educational article.  Have fun eating at fast food joints - it's just as fast to get a to go salad at whole foods.

HungryAsAWolf
HungryAsAWolf

Juan, I'd like to agree with your comments but I can't quite do that. I agree that the families are accountable for their actions and not the local McDonalds, and I also agree that government is not the solution. But children raised by adults who themselves do not know better are not likely to spontaneously become nutrition experts. Moreover, this problem is just as bad among middle class families, and for the same reason.... lack of handed down knowledge and experience. I do not have a viable solution, never mind an easy solution. But blaming these children is not a solution either.

Juan
Juan

I don't eat at fast food joints.  I cook my meals at home and eat organic and local when I can.  I'm not going to blame businesses because people eat junk food for the convenience and cost of it.  There are groups in Miami such as Roots in the City and various farmers markets that help to provide relatively inexpensive, organic staples.  Growing up, rice and beans were a daily thing.  Literally, for around the same costs, a family can stock up and staples that last a while.  It doesn't take half a brain to realize that eating junk food and drinking soda is bad for you.  It's not like the school is somehow failing these kids.  The schools are there to teach them to be literate, perform basic math and have an understanding of science.  It's not supposed to be their life coaches and nutritionists.  There's no excuse for such things.  Don't get me wrong, the appeal of junk food is very strong.  I know more than a few people that live off fast food and frozen tv dinners.  It's not because they don't have alternatives, but because it's more convenient.  I agree with HungerWolf in that the majority of the blame doesn't necessarily rest with the kids, as they are -well, kids.  However, don't blame government institutions and businesses.  Hell, I had myself a very nutritious, hearty, vegan meal for like ~$5 at a Hare Krishna restaurant in Sweetwater the other day. Eating healthy is not some great mysterious science or luxury of the bougeousie.  A lot of people don't like to cook anymore at home.  I don't blame them; sometimes it's a hassle.  I'm just saying, it's not difficult or expensive to stock up on rice, beans, potatoes, onions, chicken, ect. and cook lunch and dinner.  Hell, even making some hard boiled eggs for the day takes -what, 15 minutes.

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