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At High School, Pit Stops Add 21,000 Calories in Two Hours

By Kendra Marr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 19, 2008

At 10:59 a.m., Bladensburg High School's three vending machines are hungrily whirring, anticipating the first quarters of the day.

Sophomore Ruth Flores bounces toward the snack machine, white iPod buds in her ears, and pulls two dollar bills out of her khaki shorts.

Error! The machine spits out a dollar. Error! Again, it rejects the crumpled bill.

Flores smooths her bills against the machine and tries once more. Out falls her meal -- 530 calories and 25 grams of fat, or French Onion Sun Chips and Linden's big fudge chip cookies. Ka-ching. Ka-ching. Ka-ching.

"I wouldn't call it lunch," she said as she gathered her change of 75 cents. "I know it's not healthy, but it's not like they're selling fruits."

In the battle against childhood obesity, vending machines have been labeled the enemy by the Agriculture Department, which sponsors school lunches. To students, the machines are often an alternative to long lunch lines and sometimes unappetizing food.

Bladensburg's vending machines are more healthful than most, and fewer than half the school's 2,100 students buy snacks and sodas from the machines on a typical day. Rice Krispies Treats (150 calories, 3.5 grams of fat) are an improvement from Snickers bars (280 calories, 14 grams of fat). Baked chips have replaced fried.

Not offered in Prince George's County schools are self-serve apples and oranges.

"We're trying to phase healthier foods in so it's not such a shock," said Daniel P. Townsend, director of the school district's department of food and nutrition services. "You can offer all of the tofu and spinach you want, but if children don't consume it, it doesn't have any real value."

Shortly before 11 a.m., the first of four 30-minute lunch periods begins. From the back wall of the cafeteria, rows of shiny packages of snacks beckon students, who rush in through the lunchroom doors. Vending machine selection C3: Mini Oreos. A4: Cool Ranch Doritos. B2: Andy Capp's Hot Fries.

The bright, colorful Snapple machine (170 calories, 40 grams of sugar in 12 ounces) casts a warm glow. Students scoff at the Nesquik milkshake machine (360 calories, 48 grams of sugar in 13.5 ounces) that's covered with cow spots.

At 11:16 a.m., sophomore Latisha Waller, an outgoing girl in a purple windbreaker, sucks on a lollipop and grabs a fistful of Sour Punch Straws from a friend. On the sly, she bought the candy, which is forbidden in the cafeteria, from a student in the hallway.

Waller's friends, also flouting the polo shirt and khakis dress code, pool their change to buy Snapple fruit punch (170 calories, no fat) and Fritos (160 calories, 10 grams of fat).

"Everyone has snacks," Waller said. "Lunch is more of a time for fellowship, conversation."

In other words: At this early hour, just 1 1/2 hours into their school day, Waller and her friends are still full from breakfast -- or the McDonald's they bought this morning.

The bell for the second lunch period beeps like a high-pitched fax machine.

A skinny girl in skinny jeans points at the Nesquik milkshakes and yells, "How much is this?" A drink costs $1.25. She walks to the Snapple machine and instead picks out a 75-cent apple juice (170 calories, no fat).

At 11:50 a.m., a crowd forms at the opposite end of the cafeteria for the lunch line and at the snack bar, which sells items identical to those in the vending machine.

Three boys, with hair slicked back and white polo shirts hanging to around their knees, mob the snack machine. From the six rows of snacks, they each hit D5. Three bags of Welch's Fruit Snacks (195 calories, no fat) curl forward and fall into the bin.

The crowd for the third lunch period bursts in with a thunderous chatter and music blasting from their cellphones. Lines snake up to the machines.

"D2! D2! I didn't want this!" shouts a girl with curly hair as she pounds on the glass.

Two students, heads tilted up, shake down the last crumbs of their 50-cent Hot Fries (150 calories, 7 grams of fat), while waiting for Snapple drinks.

Assistant Principal Bernard Lucas grabs a microphone and starts to sing: "I'm so glad, I go to Bladensburg High . . ."

The Snapple machine is working overtime and kiwi-strawberry drinks (220 calories, no fat) are running low.

"I'm so glad I go to BHS. I'm so glad I go to Bladensburg High . . ."

Students shove open the bin flap and grope for their 75-cent Rice Krispies Treats.

"Glory! Hallelujah! I'm so glad . . ."

Teens gossip in Spanish next to the idle milk machine.

Nearby, students frantically pound the buttons on the near-empty Snapple machine.

A student with a broken hand fumbles with $1.25 before punching the right buttons. A1: Cheetos Baked Flamin' Hot (120 calories, 4.5 grams of fat). F2: Welch's fruit snacks.

For a $1.85 school lunch, these students could gobble up pizza, collard greens, fresh fruit and calcium-fortified juice.

Instead, many are spending $2 to $3 on vending goods.

At 1:10 p.m., a group of three girls is clutching two bags of Cool Ranch Doritos (140 calories, 7 grams of fat) in each hand, while balancing bottles of Hawaiian Punch (300 calories and zero fat) under their arms. A sophomore boy, with a Kermit the Frog backpack, returns to the machines for a third time for more chips and a Rice Krispies Treat.

At 1:14 p.m., the last lunch bell beeps and the crowd surges away, leaving a trail of empty bottles and deflated chip bags in its wake.

Bladensburg students have bought 186 items, spending a total of $130, devouring 21,000 calories and 629.5 grams of fat. Eleven of the 24 wire-coil snack slots are empty. Kiwi-strawberry drinks are gone. No one bought a milkshake. The profit from sales go to district's food and nutrition services.

"Wait an hour and they'll be crawling back," said Michael Vincent, who has worked in the cafeteria for nine years.

As midday hunger sets in, students start banging their fists on the cafeteria windows: "Mr. Mike! Mr. Mike! Please, please!" Vincent unlocks the door and lets them swarm the machines again. He said he would rather see students munch on the vending machine's baked chips than candy bars sold outside of school.

"Hey," he said, "I love 'em."

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