Merced High School junior Vivianna Enriquez walks across Olive Avenue almost every day during her lunch break to chow down on french fries.
What makes fries so tasty that Enriquez wants to eat them every day? "All the grease," she said.
You may have seen billboards promoting healthier eating habits. Or you may have heard radio commercials about increasing the consumption of fruits and vegetables. Or you may have seen changes in your child's school menus.
The goal: to improve nutrition and try to get people like Enriquez to change their eating habits.
The Network for a Healthy California is allocating $985,000 for the 2011 fiscal year for the placement of outdoor advertising to promote healthy eating and physical activity in several cities throughout the state.
However, despite efforts to help promote nutrition and good dietary habits among youngsters, many of them aren't getting the message, experts say.
While there's no simple answer, the problem stems from a combination of aggressive fast-food marketing, affordability and accessibility, habits that youngsters pick up at home, money and behavior and a lack of nutritional education.
Children and teenagers are exposed to more fast-food ads than ever before, according to a 2010 study by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. In 2009, the fast-food industry spent more than $4.2 billion on TV commercials and other media ads.
More than $300 million is spent each year to market fast food to youngsters, the study found.
From 2003 to 2009, the number of ads seen by children aged 2 to 5 increased by 21 percent, while among children aged 6 to 11 it rose by 34 percent, according to the study. But the most dramatic increase in ad exposure was found among teenagers -- the number soared by 39 percent.
Peter Sanchez, a senior at Merced High School, said he believes TV fast-food ads are effective. Last week, he decided to go to Carl's Jr. and try a Big Carl during his school lunch break. "That's where I got the idea for the Big Carl," he said of a TV commercial he saw. "It looks good."
But that wasn't his first time at Carl's Jr. by any means. In fact, he said he eats fast food at least once a day, every day.
Affordability and accessibility
Aside from aggressive marketing strategies, fast-food restaurants are available and cheap.
Claudia Corchado, program manager for the Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program in Merced, said the consumption of fast food by youngsters is a convenience issue. "It's just plain cheap," she said. "It's very inexpensive to eat fast food. You can feed a family of four with $5."
It's more expensive to eat healthy food than it is to eat processed food, Corchado added.
However, Rudy M. Ortiz, associate professor of physiology and nutrition at UC Merced, argued that fast food isn't cheap. He believes the major issue is convenience.
Fast-food restaurants also are easy to find in most areas. For example, Merced High -- the only Merced County school that allows juniors and seniors with good behavior out for lunch -- is across the street from several fast food places.
Carl's Jr., Long John Silver's, KFC, Jack in the Box, Burger King, Pizza Hut, El Pollo Loco, McDonald's and Subway are all within walking distance of the high school. Long lines of students crowd the venues every day.
Merced High School is at a disadvantage because of the convenient location, Ortiz said.
Eating habits start at home