Are you pro-choice?

Given the choice between nutritional and unhealthy foods, students increasingly make decisions that harm them physically and emotionally…

Janie Simonton | Staff Writer

Nutritionally lacking comfort food has been creating uncomfortable situations recently. The extra weight it adds to the body is appearing all over the nation, creating a different kind of epidemic — one that can’t be stopped with a simple vaccination.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 18 percent of American adolescents (ages 12-19) were overweight in 2008, and the rate of obesity worsens as they get older: the study reported 67 percent of American adults who are classified as overweight.

According to the Cleveland Free Times, this statistic shouldn’t be surprising, considering the “pervasiveness of fast food advertising,” which leads to the excessive consumption of it. When children can recognize the faces of Wendy, the red-headed, pig-tailed mascot of the fast food giant of the same name and Ronald McDonald faster than those of George Washington and Jesus, it becomes apparent fast food has pervaded our culture. In the 2004 film Super Size Me, amateur filmmaker Morgan Spurlock traveled to Manhattan elementary schools, where he asked children to name for him the famous people whose faces were on cards he held up for the class. The children had trouble recognizing the historical heroes, but the names they could shout as soon as the Spurlock picture flipped around were those of the fast food faces.

McDonald’s and Wendy’s both make the top five list for the unhealthier value menus, according to research done by the Cancer Project, which, according to its website, “promotes cancer prevention and survival through a better understanding of cancer causes, particularly the link between nutrition and cancer.”  These restaurants are included in the report “Cheap Eats for Hard Times: The Five Most Unhealthful Fast Food Value Menu Items,” along with Jack in the Box, Taco Bell and Burger King.

Senior Tristan Clark, an employee of Wendy’s, said this doesn’t surprise him.

“[The food at Wendy’s is] very fatty and high-calorie,” Clark said. “[Working at Wendy’s] makes me not want to eat fast food very much, because I see what goes on behind the counter.”

Clark said that the chili at Wendy’s is a particular item he tries to avoid.

“The [chili] meat is all the overcooked hamburger meat that is frozen in grease, then boiled in grease and chopped up in grease and then put in the chili,” Clark said.

Despite the unappealing nature o fast food’s creation, the obesity rate is still rising: Medical News Today reported a two percent rise in people who reported being obese from 2005 to 2007, with poor nutrition cited as a primary cause. According to MeriNews.com, “it’s very important not to compromise health for taste,” but with the climbing obesity rates, it becomes probable people are.

According to Ron Lagerquist, author of “Why Junk Food Tastes So Good,” people buy food depending on how well it fits into their lifestyle, and one of the primary factors of choosing food is taste.

“Most people buy their weekly groceries according to convenience and taste,” Lagerquist said. “This is evidenced by the fact that processed food makes up about 90 percent of all the money Americans spend on food.”

English teacher Fred Reeder, who has taught the book Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser — an investigative nonfiction novel which explores from where our food comes — in his class, said the deceptive nature of nutrition labels, not just taste, could also be a cause for the obesity epidemic.

“Unless we read the [food] labels and understand the labels, more often than not we are being manipulated,” Reeder said. “[We have to look at] fat-free chips [and] things like that, [because] they may not have fat, but they have calories. And they’re not as healthy as we think. Any processed food means that it’s been adulterated, either in color or taste.”

Doug Hennig said he knows what it’s like to be part of this epidemic . His experience — he used a summer of Weight Watchers and exercise to drop from 185 pounds to 130 between eighth grade and freshman year — inspired the novel The Fat Boy Chronicles, by authors Diane Lang and Michael Buchanon (under the pseudonym Lang Buchanon), which Tin Roof Films is making into a movie to be released in the summer of 2010.

Hennig, a 2008 Mason High School graduate, said he believes The Fat Boy Chronicles, which follows fictional character Jimmy Winterpock through his high school weightloss battle and the humiliation he endures before the weight comes off, is a story people “definitely need to hear.”

“[It shows] that there is some hope in finding a better way to live your life to save your life,” Hennig said.

Although Hennig said he admits that some aspects of his story, such as the lives of his friends, were tweaked by the authors so more kids would be able to relate to it, he said he appreciates the accuracy between Winterpock’s weight-loss struggles and his own; he said it gave a “pretty fair description” of his adolescence.

Like Winterpock, Hennig said he was the subject of weight-related bullying in his years at Mason.

“[I was bullied] in the locker room constantly [about] my chest and my belly,” Hennig said. “I couldn’t do any chin-ups or pushups at all, and [kids] would always say, ‘Hey, you belong in the other locker room.’”

Hennig also said he cites out-of-school soccer practices as grounds for image-based teasing.

“[Once, at recreational] soccer practice, we were scrimmaging [and we divided ourselves between shirts and skins],” Hennig said. “I ended up being on the skins team, so I [took] my shirt off, and the kids on my team immediately started giving me stares and pointing. Once I took my shirt off, [friendship] didn’t matter anymore, and kids just openly made fun of me.”

Senior Nikki Kehres said that in-school bullying of overweight students happens as well, but in a more subtle form than outright name-calling.

“Normally, what I see [at] school really makes me mad,” Kehres said. “When someone is a little different or a little unique, there’s normally a group…that will hone in on that person. Every time [the person] talk[s], every time they move, walk into class or open their mouth, there’s always a joke to crack. There’s always something mean to say.”

Kehres said she believes the way to correct this bullying problem lies in the power of the students, not the administrators.

“I think the students need to make a conscious effort if they see something going on; they need to step in and say something,” Kehres said.

But according to Hennig, Mason schools are doing the best they can to prevent bullying, considering the amounts of students.

“Mason has a lot of those kids who don’t say anything [about bullying], so there’s not as much individual attention,” Hennig said. “I think Mason has done a good job of identifying the bullying, [given the size of the district, but] it’s just going to take a lot of effort from peers [to stop the teasing].”

Although he said the school didn’t always intervene in his bullying situation, Hennig said the district isn’t at fault for everything– the snack choices offered in school cafeterias, which, when eaten in excess, can help to lead to overweight students, aren’t something for which the district should be reprimanded. He said he condones the food service’s lunch options, even though they aren’t always nutritionally preferable.

“I think the café offers [healthy] options, but there’s a great temptation to get pizza or tacos every day,” Hennig said. “[The district] needs to implement something that would actually make kids eat a little bit healthily.”

Although Hennig said the district isn’t applying as many nutrition regimens as it should, Health and Independent Living and Wellness teacher Stephanie Brittingham said she thinks the district is making progressive steps to fight obesity at the high school level.

“I feel that Mason High School has always been proactive in fighting obesity, and in recent years [it’s] been a lot more effective,” Brittingham said. “You see even more healthy choices in the cafeteria being offered; it’s not just the fried food anymore. They have all those healthy side dishes and options that are available to you.”

Clark said, however, that the unhealthy options are still present.

“[The school’s effectiveness at serving nutritional options is] not great; it’s all right,” Clark said. “They give the healthy options, but they give just as many unhealthy options.”

According to Assistant Supervisor of Food Service Tamara Earl, who plans the lunch menu, the focus on healthy options in Mason cafeterias will be targeted more in the future.

“[There will be a] continued and growing emphasis on whole grains, a consciousness about sodium content and a [stress] on portion control [in upcoming meal plans],” Earl said.

Earl said the Food Service department has started its trek through conquering these objectives already.

“The [sizes of the] ice cream [portions] have changed dramatically [from large to small],” Earl said. “[And we use the] SnackWise Program [to] analyze a lot of products, only putting things out evaluated by this program.”

The SnackWise Program, a computer system that evaluates the nutritional content of foods, suggests food departments in schools “establish the ratio [of snack options available to students] as 30 percent green (best choice), 55 percent yellow (choose occasionally), and 15 percent red (choose rarely).” But the SnackWise Program isn’t the only deciding factor the school district uses to make nutritional choices for Mason, according to Earl. She said the district also relies on the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), which “provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to children each school day,” so all students under the plan are given the opportunity to make healthy eating choices. The program was established by President Harry Truman in 1946 under the National School Lunch Act, according to the United States Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service.

According to Reeder, all this food reform can be advantageous to students’ futures, but the unhealthy options offered in school cafeterias can be beneficial to students as well. He said the variety of food options offered to students at Mason is a good thing, because it forces them to make educated choices about what they eat.

“[Not all the pressure] should be on the school to force [students] into this fake world of healthful choices,” Reeder said. “[It gives students] the option to say, ‘No,’ [which is something they’ll] need in the real world.”

Reeder said that the online food service, a segment of the district website which allows parents to view what their child has been purchasing, places more responsibility on parents to control their child’s nutrition.

“Parents [can] check to see what their students are buying — the school is trying to get parents involved, so they can check up on their children,” Reeder said.

But according to Earl, the primary focus for the lunch program this year is to offer nutritious options, not to target obesity or to make sure parents are checking in on their children.

“We are not targeting obesity as much as we’re targeting overall nutrition criteria [we need] to meet,” Earl said.

Brittingham said that this aim to remedy student nutrition is going to result in new courses for the upcoming school year.

“Physical Education is going to change a little bit; instead of doing just general PE classes, we’re going to be doing what’s called Fit for Life,” Brittingham said. “That [is] a PE class that involves being physically active in the gym, but also going and learning how to use weight machines and using the pool and a lot of different resources instead of just staying in the Field House for PE. It also includes a day in the classroom where [students] will be learning about fitness and nutrition.”

Brittingham said that in addition to advocating district choices to encourage healthy student lifestyles, she tries to take steps to subconsciously encourage her students to make better nutritional decisions.

“I’m eating an apple — I’ll try to do that during class to make [my students] see me eating healthily,” Brittingham said. “I mean, realistically, that’s a challenge for every person to try to be healthy 24/7. Personally…coaching helps me stay active, and I guess that’s something I try to do to educate [my students] — just show them by my experiences, because I’ve run marathons before and I’ve participated in [other athletic] events.”

Although Brittingham said conquering student obesity is a huge challenge right now, and the Health Department is going to have to take a lot more steps to win that battle, she said she hasn’t seen much image-related bullying in her teaching experience.

“This was the first year that I talked to my students about bullying that goes on in school and what kind of things they see,” Brittingham said. “I got a pretty positive response from students: they said they don’t see a lot of bullying go on. I’m sure bullying [happens] everywhere, but I’m very proud to say that I have not seen much of it here at Mason High School. [That] doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, but I haven’t seen it going on in a classroom.”

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