Corner Stores a Threat to City Kids' Waistlines?

Most teachers who have worked in low-income urban areas have seen the corner store snack ritual, and likely thought it was unhealthy.

But for the first time, obesity researchers have attempted to quantify just how much city kids eat at corner stores after school.

A new study in the journal Pediatrics examined the after school snacking habits of 10, K-8 Philadelphia schools where 50 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

The results showed that city kids consumed large amounts of high calorie, low costs foods. The findings largely confirmed doctors' ideas of how much and how often the kids snacked, but hardly any expert agreed on how to stop it.

"Pineapple soda and potato chips: every day after school, and before," said Ben Himowitz, a former school teacher.

When Himowitz transferred from an elementary school in Philadelphia to a middle school in the Bronx, he saw the same ritual bodega stops, but kids were just buying different foods.

"Often they'd get money from their parents to get a snack," he said. "Candy was also big -- they'd stand in front of those plastic walls with candy behind them and say 'give me one of those, and some of those,' and show how much money they could spend."

Many children went to the bodega, but Himowitz said going to McDonalds -- the other food store near the school -- became a trendy thing to do in the morning.

Just How Much Do City Kids Eat at Corner Stores?

The schools notified children that researchers would be standing nearby corner stores in identifiable T-shirts, and would be asking to look at what they bought.

From 833 "intercept" surveys of children outside 24 corner stores, researchers found that children usually ate chips, candy and sweetened drinks. They spend an average of $1 each visit and ate 350 calories worth of snacks at each visit.

Forty-two percent of the children said they went to the corner store twice a day, which would amount to eating over 3,500 calories from the corner store a week -- the number of excess calories needed to gain a pound.

"We were surprised primarily by the fact that one dollar can buy 360 calories," said Kelley Borradaile, lead author of the study and an assistant professor at the Center for Obesity Research and Education at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Considering those numbers, researchers say those corner store visits may very well be a big problem – especially in low-income urban areas where often 50 percent of children are overweight and 25 percent of children are obese.

How to Convince Kids to Eat Healthy Food

Borradaile said new efforts outside of school lunches should be made to steer children towards healthy eating.

"I think targeting some of the popular items that kids like and purchase most frequently would," said Borradaile, who suggested "moving from chips to baked chips" and making healthier items more attractive to children in school.

Borradaile is currently working with The Food Trust, a local non-profit, to help market healthy foods to children in new ways such as letting children create cool labels for bottles of water.

"These are things that are appealing to the children because the children created them," said Borradaile.

But other diet experts and researchers varied widely on recommendations to curb corner store snacking. In fact, many disagreed with one another.

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