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

One local school struggles to provide healthier snack options for its students, while still supplying tasty choices.
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 19, 2008; Page D01

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

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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.

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