By This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and Maria Luisa Cesar
My San Antonio

When the afternoon bell rings and students burst through the exits of Hobby Middle School on the Northwest Side, the lure of junk food is just a stone's throw away at a nearby convenience store.

"It's close and it's kind of within walking distance," said Taylor Cromer, 12. "And (students) want to hang out somewhere that's not school."

While parents may steer kids to healthier foods at home, fast food and sugary snacks are everywhere, it seems. And a San Antonio researcher has a new study to show that simply having a convenience store or fast food restaurant within walking distance is often enough to spoil good eating habits.

Dr. Meizi He, associate professor of kinesiology at the University of Texas at San Antonio, interviewed more than 800 seventh- and eighth-grade students about their eating habits — from soda and candy consumption to fruits and vegetables.

"This age group, usually they're just getting their independence," He said. "And they'll use their pocket money to buy things that parents may control at home."

The students lived in London, Ontario, where He was working at the time. But He said the results should apply equally to San Antonio or most other large urban areas.

Children who lived within a kilometer — six-tenths of a mile — of a fast food restaurant or convenience store had poorer eating habits than those who did not. So did children whose schools had three or more junk food sources within the same distance.

The differences weren't necessarily huge. But they were consistent among hundreds of children — even after adjusting for differences in income, how much education parents had and other factors.

The results were published online this week in the journal Public Health Nutrition.

He's study is the latest in a growing body of research in recent years looking at the relationship between obesity, sedentary habits and the so-called built environment — how the design of neighborhoods influences physical activity and food choices.

The study's findings came as no surprise to Ky Mitchell, 30, a Hobby parent.

"For parents — especially single parents — it's easier for them to give them money. And you give them the money thinking they're going to make the right decision, and then they do the wrong thing." Mitchell said. "I just think it's what kids like. It's junk food."

Richard Hillis, who teaches sixth- and seventh-grade English, said that while proximity of junk food plays a role in food choices, parents may still have influence.

"If parents are sending kids with money, they're going to get fast food," Hillis said, adding that middle school students are influenced by a myriad of factors. "Some are just healthy eaters, but they're coming from home as healthy eaters."

Samina Raja, a professor of urban planning at the University at Buffalo, N.Y., led a similar study of adult women last year.

Raja found that the more restaurants within a five-minute walk from home, the heavier the women were. The reverse was true for women living closer to a supermarket, presumably with a wider selection of fresh fruits and vegetables.

"Disparities in access to good-quality food remains an important issue in North America, and the topic of (He's) paper takes us a step further in understanding how these disparities impact children's dietary intake," Raja said.He said that while access to healthy foods in stores might appeal to adults, kids are going to go straight for the candy if they're doing the buying.

"We had another study looking at school vending machines," she said. "We put in healthy options, and they said, no, we're not going to spend our money on those healthy options. Those are already at home."

Educating kids on good nutrition might help, He said. But in the end, it might be up to city officials and urban planners to tailor the zoning around schools and neighborhoods — to put those unhealthy options just outside the reach of young feet.

"We think that one kilometer — close to one mile — is that magic distance that children will walk to buy things," He said. "Further, they won't."

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