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MIAMI - It's noon at Miami Beach Senior High, and freshman Tammy Garcia has just bought her lunch: a bag of Ruffles Cheddar Cheese Potato Chips and a bag of Flamin' Hot Cheetos from a vending machine.
Total: 350 calories, 57 percent of them from fat.
"I know it isn't healthy," says Garcia, 14.
At South Plantation (Fla.) High, senior Chris Bogle, 17, makes lunch of two slices of Papa John's pepperoni pizza.
Total: 606 calories, 36 percent of them from fat.
"I eat healthy at home."
At a time when one of seven American teens is overweight or obese, students face a minefield of temptations.
Why? Cafeterias overwhelmed by more students than they can feed and aggressive efforts by fast food and soft drink companies to nab a captive audience.
Sure, Miami Beach High junior Juan Gomez, 16, is having a healthier chef's salad and low-fat milk. His $1.50 lunch is prepared under USDA guidelines that set targets for nutrition - with no more than 30 percent of calories from fat.
But he's in a minority. Consider what students are eating:
-Cookies and cake that aren't governed by USDA guidelines.
-Domino's pizza, Blimpie's subs, McDonald's Quarter Pounders with cheese and sodas sold from carts by school personnel.
-Sodas, chips and candy bars from vending machines welcomed by schools to make money.
"We're in the midst of a dangerous epidemic of obesity with kids," says Sheah Rarback, registered dietitian and member of the Miami-Dade School Lunch Advisory Board. "The schools must take some of the responsibility."
But schools vouch only for their cafeteria food. "If kids buy extra, they're on their own," says Peggy Parham, Dade, Fla., schools' director of Food and Nutrition.
Not every school offers all such foods: At some schools vendor food is limited to pizza and subs, not burgers. Still, nutrition advocates aren't pleased.
"In the school lunches themselves, nutritional standards are quite good," says Margo Wootan, director for nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "But the standards for what is sold outside the cafeterias are very weak. It should be a source of shame for administrators."
Retorts Miami Beach High Principal Dr. Jeanne Friedman: "Some of these kids are 18. They can fight a war. They've got to start making decisions."
It frustrates Parham. "We put so much effort into the cafeteria lunches," she said. "Where we feel kids get into obesity is that they have access to candy, pizza and soft drinks for sale all day."
In Miami-Dade, the problem exploded after 1999. That's when the school board closed all high school campuses during lunch after three students were killed in an auto crash while returning from an off-campus lunch.
Cafeterias designed for hundreds are feeding thousands. Miami Beach High has a 350-seat cafeteria - and 2,500 students.
In Broward, Fla., rapid growth is the culprit: "Overcrowding is a tremendous problem," says School Board spokesman Joe Donzelli.
Unable to dish out baked chicken and whole-kernel corn fast enough, schools turned to outside vendors.
Vendors mean big money. In Miami-Dade, schools get a cut of what they sell; district-wide, sales were $10 million to $12 million last year. "Some schools get $2,000 to $3,000 a month," Parham says.
Snack and soda vending machines are even more lucrative. And ubiquitous: Nationwide, 240 school districts have sold "pouring rights" to soft drink companies in return for cash, an AMA report said.
Miami Beach High gets $60,000 a year for letting Pepsi put its machines there.
"It goes for proms and homecoming dances. It helps support our football team," principal Friedman says.
At South Plantation High, Principal Joel Herbst gets a percentage of sales for his school.
"It's a good amount, and it's needed, for athletics, band, chorus, drama, clubs."
Schools have two kinds of vending machines: those in cafeterias run by the cafeteria staff, and those in hallways stocked by commercial vendors.
At Carol City (Fla.) High School, cafeteria vending machines are open from 7 a.m. until after lunch selling potato chips, Cheetos, crackers and cheese but not candy or gum; beverage machines sell milk, Yoo Hoo and juice but not sodas, according to manager Carol Beck.
Hallway vending machines are supposed to be off-limits during lunch. But at Beach High one recent lunch period, they were unsupervised. In 30 minutes a reporter counted 21 students buying deep-fried snacks and sodas.
And in 1999, Gov. Jeb Bush and the Florida Cabinet created a new loophole. If local school boards and principals approve, any soda machine with one 100-percent juice drink can be open all day.
"The soft drink industry has been very aggressive in marketing in schools," says Wootan. "They take advantage of the financial constraints schools face."
Wootan says legislatures in California, Connecticut, Kentucky, Massachusetts and New York have introduced bills to limit or ban soda sales in schools.
It discourages Parham: "We try so hard. We have fresh salads, hot vegetables, cold milk, 100 percent juice. We don't fry anything."
Someday, planners hope expanded cafeterias will be able to accommodate all students with their USDA-regulated lunches. For now, Friedman maintains that high schoolers should be mature enough to eat properly.
"All of them are taught nutrition starting in elementary school. It's amazing that even with all that knowledge, they can still make bad choices."
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Daniela Lamas contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, The Miami Herald. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.