Chris Lineberry stood in front of hundreds of seventhgraders at Apache Junction’s Thunder Mountain Middle School, holding a long glass tube containing 39 grams of sugar.
“This is how much sugar is in one can of Coke,” he said.
He repeated the process for Mountain Dew. Then Jell-O. Then Froot Loops breakfast cereal. And a Pop Tart — laying bare the nutritional content of the favorite teen snacks.
Next, he hit the fast-food restaurants, talking about McDonald’s advertising tactics and pointing out one hamburger contains meat from many cows.
“They take the meat ... and mash it and mush it up and make it into a burger,” he said, using a factoid from Eric Schlosser’s book, “Fast Food Nation,” to a chorus of “ewws” from the audience.
“They’re usually really surprised,” said Lineberry, a national speaker on childhood obesity, who came to Thunder Mountain to kick off a schoolwide fitness campaign where students will walk across America throughout the school year.
The school received a $15,000 state grant this year to fight and prevent obesity. And instead of just placing healthy options in its school cafeteria — a state mandate for elementary and middle schools — Thunder Mountain is going further, using the gross-out factor to convince kids to avoid junk food.
But combating junk food companies isn’t easy when you’re one of their targets. Many schools are caught in a balancing act, trying to encourage healthy eating, yet wanting to participate in corporatesponsored incentive programs that give free ice cream or pizzas for academic achievement.
The federal No Child Left Behind Act, which places an increased emphasis on highstakes test scores and attendance, has contributed to the pressure some educators feel to take part in these incentive programs, hoping they will help children improve test scores, according to a report by the Education Studies Policy Laboratory at Arizona State University.
“We get things all the time,” said Dan Cooper, principal at Scottsdale’s Supai Middle School. “In-and-Out burgers, pizza, whenever a place opens they send coupons or things for the kids.”
McDonald’s franchises donate books to low-income classrooms and tout the chain’s healthier items by doling out salads on Teacher Appreciation Day.
One of the oldest and most popular incentives is Pizza Hut’s “Book it!” Program, which provides a free personal pizza to students when they reach monthly reading goals.
A personal pan pizza with pepperoni, according to the company’s Web site, contains 660 calories and 30 grams of fat.
More than 1,000 classrooms in Mesa alone take part in “Book it!” — down several hundred from last year.
Thunder Mountain no longer provides fast food coupons as incentives, principal Russell Sgro said.
“It won’t work if we’re going to talk one way and then do another,” Sgro said. “The prizes we do give out are healthy, or aren’t food. Even at our dances we used to sell soda; now we don’t. The schools have to do the same things we tell the kids they should be doing.”
Decisions to join programs like “Book it!” are left up to classroom teachers, said Fredi Buffmire, principal at Mesa’s Mendoza Elementary School.
“There are a number of companies that provide coupons and things, and if they want to use them, they do,” she said.
Cooper said he has no problem with taking part in incentive programs, as long as they work to get kids reading, not just advertise products.
“I know when I grew up, food was a reward. If something great happened in the family, we went out to eat. That’s part of the culture,” Cooper said. “If (a program) is part of making learning relevant, if it makes sense and is reasonable, then I think it’s fair game. You have to give teachers some latitude, and I think they are very cognizant of the issues of obesity and out-of-shape kids.” Fast food exists in cafeteria lunchrooms, but its presence is decreasing, said Rich Crandall, a member of the Mesa Unified School District Governing Board and director of a national nutrition consulting firm.
Arby’s, McDonald’s and Taco Bell have recently left the cafeteria arena, he said, due to strict nutritional and foodsafety rules.
“Taco Bell was huge in the market ... but they had to do a special reformulation of their beans because of the fat. They decided the school market was not worth it,” he said.
The Apache Junction Unified School District, like many in the East Valley, does serve some commercial fast food at lunchtime, but only healthier products made specifically for schools, including Subway sandwiches and special lowerfat Papa John’s pizza.
The school district is being careful not to go too far with its health campaign, said Jim Lockwood, an associate superintendent.
“We don’t want to tell the kids, ‘This is exactly what you can eat, this is exactly what you can’t.’ That becomes very hard to sustain,” he said. “We wanted to create an environment that didn’t go overboard.”