Fast food: Students take closer look

Written by David Green. Posted in Feature Stories

By DAVID GREEN

Jeff Snyder claims he won’t be eating as much fast food anymore and he knows he’s going to close the door completely on certain items.

For classmate Derek Barnhart, the impact of a summer school course was even greater.

“I’m not going to eat there forever,” he said in reference to McDonald’s restaurants.

Robert Fox, another member of the class, plays the middle ground. He knows he won’t eat as much fast food as in the past, but it’s Wendy’s that he prefers and that chain gets a rating as one of the healthiest fast food restaurants.

The three boys were part of a class taught by Morenci Area High School teacher Heather Whitehouse, who led a dozen students on an examination of fast food and marketing techniques. It all began with a movie called “Super Size Me.”

The documentary film chronicles 30 days in the life of Morgan Spurlock, a man who decided to go on a McDonald’s diet. For one month, Spurlock ate nothing but McDonald’s food. He had to eat everything on the menu at least once, and, when offered, he supersized. Spurlock’s weight went up as his health went down.

His own adventure is the backdrop to the movie, but Spurlock also explores the rising tide of obesity in America, the lack of exercise for many students and the food served in schools.

“I loved that movie and I really wanted to do something with it,” Mrs. Whitehouse said.

She knew the movie itself wasn’t enough to work with, so she did some research to expand the topic. An educationally-enhanced version of the film provided several resources and she picked up some additional ideas in a teaching magazine. She soon had far more than enough material for a two-week class.

It isn’t merely the concept of fast food that Mrs. Whitehouse wanted her students to examine critically; it’s what those restaurants serve. One of the students’ assignments was to create ideas for a healthier fast food establishment.

“I think it could be done,” Barnhart said.

Snyder talked about a family-owned fast-food restaurant in the movie that bought its supplies from local growers—including meat minus the growth hormones and antibiotics.

Beyond that, preparation would be the key to an alternative restaurant.

“It would serve the same food,” Snyder said, “just a lot healthier.”

Exercise

It wasn’t just McDonald’s that the kids examined; they were also forced to take a good look at themselves. A 48-hour food and exercise log was kept and the results were compared with standard guidelines.

“They were amazed at how poor their diets are and how little exercise some of them were getting,” Mrs. Whitehouse said.

Her ideas of exercise have changed dramatically since she was a student sitting at a desk at Morenci Area High School.

“I used to think physical education classes were such a waste of time, but they’re not.”

The challenge her students faced, however, came from thinking about how to change “gym class” from what it is to what it could become.

“I asked them to think about the most unathletic person they knew and then to think about how the class could be changed to make it appealing to them.”

That’s a tough one, Snyder admitted, but he now knows that non-athletes need to think about staying in shape, too, and schools should be thinking about how to address the need.

Taking aim

Robert Fox describes what he learned about advertising as “a real eye opener.” Derek Barnhart and Jeff Snyder agreed. They’re now looking at commercials from a different perspective.

 Mrs. Whitehouse called one segment of her class “Lies we’re told and how they can hurt us: marketing, propaganda and teens.”

“We took a broader look at how items are marketed toward teens,” she said. “I wanted the kids to go from being passive observers to realizing they’re being manipulated.”

A list of propaganda techniques brings to mind ads from the recent political season—fear tactics, doublespeak, glittering generalities, name-calling, acting like plain folk—but Mrs. Whitehouse helped students see the same methods employed in ads for alcohol, tobacco, fashions and, of course, fast food.

“Ads try to convince kids to buy the latest and greatest,” she said. “They convince you to want to look like models. They make you want to be part of the crowd. They’re taking advantage of you and you’re not even aware of it. We live in a consumer culture and it’s ultimately about making money.”

There’s nothing random about the marketing, she said, and it’s all very obvious once you start looking for it.

And once you start writing your own.

That was another requirement in the propaganda unit—coming up with an idea for a new product and then creating an advertising campaign to market it. Students chose products of interest to them, such as clothes, electronic devices and car accessories, and then applied what they learned about propaganda to sell the good.

Supermodels endorsed running shoes and blue jeans, while a heavy metal musician claimed his own CDs were nothing next to the new release by a student’s band. Through creating their own ads, students could see how easy it is to influence potential customers.

Mrs. Whitehouse doesn’t know how much the class will change her students’ behavior when it comes to buying clothes or eating fast food, but she thinks they’ve definitely learned something.

“I don’t know if it’s going to change anything in terms of what they buy or eat, but they’re all going to be more critical consumers.”

- June 29, 2005 

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