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Kids, Calories and Corner Stores

Trying to get kids to eat more healthfully is like trying to keep kittens in a box: You make progress in one area -- say, school lunches -- only to find that the kids jump for the junk food first chance they get.

But in too many instances, kids seeking snacks have little to choose from other than junk.

A study published today in Pediatrics shows that urban elementary-school kids in Philadelphia who stop for snacks at corner stores before and after school largely spend their dollars on high-calorie, nutrient-poor foods. Chips topped the list, followed by candy and sweetened beverages. The study found that for just a dollar, a kid could buy an 8-ounce beverage, a single serving bag of chips, an assortment of candy and gum, and a popsicle -- adding up to hundreds of extra calories in their daily diets. More than half the kids bought after-school snacks at corner stores five days per week; nearly a third stopped in the mornings, too.

The study was supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Healthy Eating Research initiative. The goal was to attach numbers to the well-known phenomenon wherein kids in low-income urban settings get much of their food from tiny corner stores that dot their neighborhoods. Such areas -- known as "food deserts" -- often lack full-sized grocery stores, leaving families to rely on the corner stores, which typically sell little other than packaged foods and pre-made sandwiches, pizza and the like. Knowing the extent of the food-desert problem is the first step toward solving it.

The study's authors say their findings suggest that one way to tackle childhood obesity -- which runs rampant in such areas -- is to encourage corner stores to provide and promote more healthful choices. Simply offering baked chips instead of the standard fried varieties and pushing bottled water over the preferred sugary fruit-flavored juice beverages could shave substantial calories, particularly among those kids who eat corner-store food twice a day.

The study talks about kids, schools and nutrition without mentioning parents. Presumably the children, who in this study were in grades 4 through 6 at schools where the overwhelming majority of kids qualified for free- or reduced-price lunch programs, receive their spending money from an adult. Perhaps, in addition to asking corner-store proprietors to revamp their offerings, some effort could be made to help and encourage parents to do their part in guiding their kids' food choices.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  October 12, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Nutrition and Fitness , Obesity  
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I don't understand when we became this snack culture. I suppose its part of the consumer culture. When I was growing up, there was no snacking. If I was hungry after school, my mother suggested a piece of bread (Wonderbread) and butter. Now there's this idea that kids can't make it from one meal to the next without snacks. I was always shocked at how this has now even infiltrated the school day. When money is scarce, research seems to show it would be better spent on family dinner, as logistically challenging as that is. We need a new campaign: Just Say No to Snacks!

Posted by: Afriend3 | October 12, 2009 10:56 AM | Report abuse

According to the AP Stylebook the author's use of "popsicle" (lower case p) is incorrect. Popsicle is a trademark for a brand of flavored ice on a stick, and not to be used generically as it was here.

Posted by: West3 | October 12, 2009 10:59 AM | Report abuse

Not only should parents guide their children's food choices, they should guide the children's spending choices generally. For families who get free lunches, money is very tight. Why would you want you child to waste that on junk food? The parents need to ensure that the children have adequate time at school to eat their entire breakfast and lunch. They can show the children that buying in bulk saves money over buying individually packaged items. It's so sad that the kids aren't taught to have a goal and save up for it. Of course, not many adults live that way either.

Posted by: drl97 | October 12, 2009 1:28 PM | Report abuse

Instead of giving their elementary school-aged children money to buy unhealthy snacks, parents should use that money to stock their homes with healthier snacks. That's what my parents did.

Posted by: obamamama31 | October 12, 2009 4:27 PM | Report abuse

Let's consider self-responsibility and make better choices as adults. What we learn as children we carry into our adult lives. Let's choose better habits ourselves. Check out a resource for young parents and young children. This site has a tool for helping young children make better choices.

Posted by: kathleen_fuller | October 12, 2009 4:53 PM | Report abuse

If the children are buying junk food on a daily basis, I'll bet that they have been eating junk food on a daily basis since their first birthday. I'll go further and say that the older siblings and adults in the home eat junk food and fast food on a daily basis as well.

You can 'educate' the heck out of kids on nutritional information but they will replicate the eating habits that they see around them.

Giving some healthy options is a good start.

Posted by: KS100H | October 13, 2009 9:25 AM | Report abuse

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