CHICAGO – Doritos, Cheetos, chocolate bars and soda have been yanked from vending machines at the former Orr High School on Chicago’s West Side as part of the city school system’s efforts to purge junk food from schools.

But walk about 100 steps from the school complex, now called The Campus, and you’re at Burger King, where students flock before and after school to indulge in 800-calorie Whoppers with cheese and other fast-food favorites.

In the battle against childhood obesity, government policies that encourage healthy eating face a daunting challenge from the proliferation of fast-food restaurants right outside the schoolhouse door, a new study suggests.

The median distance from any Chicago school to the nearest fast-food restaurant is about a third of a mile – a walk of little more than five minutes for an adult – according to the study published Tuesday in the American Journal of Public Health.

Almost 80 percent of public and private schools in Chicago have at least one fast-food restaurant within about a half-mile, exposing children to “poor-quality food environments in their school neighborhoods,” according to the researchers from Children’s Hospital Boston and the Harvard School of Public Health.

“The concentration of fast-food restaurants around schools within a short walking distance for students is an important public health concern,” the researchers said, because it “may undermine public health efforts to improve nutritional behaviors in young people.”

The study found 79 fast-food restaurant chains clustered around some 1,300 Chicago schools, with McDonald’s restaurants making up 16 percent of the 613 fast-food sites, followed by Subway, Dunkin’ Donuts, KFC, Burger King and other chains.

Parents and students at The Campus for orientation this week had a mixed reaction to the study, with students saying they prefer the Burger King food available across the street to the granola bars and other healthy choices in their school vending machines. Though they can’t leave campus for lunch, students can stop at the Burger King before and after school.

Adonis Jones, a junior at the campus, said his favorite purchase at Burger King is a Whopper meal, and he doesn’t pay attention to the more than 1,000 calories he’s consuming.

“If I’m hungry, I just get something to eat,” he said.

James Brooks, father of a freshman, said some school cafeteria menus he’s seen look no healthier than restaurant fast food. Mary Barnes, another parent, said she’s a working mom who doesn’t always have time to cook supper and doesn’t mind her freshman daughter grabbing a burger after school.

To help parents like Barnes, policy makers should be encouraging quick, convenient but healthy alternatives to fast food in city neighborhoods, said S. Bryn Austin, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Children’s Hospital Boston, and the study’s lead researcher.

“The vast majority of food they are marketing is unhealthful,” she said of the fast-food industry.

A McDonald’s spokesman said the chain offers a “world of choice and variety” as well as comprehensive nutrition information to its customers. McDonald’s also criticized the study, saying researchers did not link the density of fast-food restaurants around schools to schoolchildren’s diets, calorie intake and other nutritional patterns.

In addition, “Common sense will tell you that most any restaurant is located in commercialized areas, where you’ll also find grocery stores, banks, shopping malls, dry cleaners and gas stations; locales in higher traffic areas that are accessible to all consumers. Schools have nothing to do with it,” a McDonald’s vice president, Walt Riker, said in a written statement.

But researchers dispute that point, saying their analysis found three and four times as many fast-food restaurants within about a mile from schools than would be expected if the restaurants were distributed in a way unrelated to the location of schools.

The study also noted that the fast-food industry markets heavily to children and adolescents, “who make up an important part of the industry’s consumer base.”

The research prompted Gov. Rod Blagojevich to renew his call to ban junk food and soda from school vending machines statewide – a 2003 initiative that failed to muster enough legislative support.

The governor has asked the Illinois State Board of Education to develop legislation or rules to ban or reduce the junk food, or create statewide nutritional guidelines for vending machine fare, said Elliot Regenstein, the governor’s director of education reform.

The Chicago school system has gained national attention for its efforts to promote healthy eating inside schools, replacing soda in vending machines with juice, water and sports drinks, and setting restrictions on the sugar, salt and fat content of vending machine offerings.

“Our primary concern is to make sure students get healthy meals at school and learn healthy eating habits,” said Chicago Public Schools spokesman Mike Vaughn. “We think that will translate to the choices they make before and after school.”

Fast-food restaurants are just one part of a food environment that has to be improved to battle an epidemic of childhood obesity, said Matt Longjohn, executive director of the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children, based at Children’s Memorial Hospital.

Policy makers need to look at everything from designing urban areas to encourage walking and biking, reforming government food programs, and getting better information to both children and parents about healthy foods, he said.

(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune.

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