According to a study by Trust for America’s Health more than 12% of high school students in New Mexico are obese. Maria Flores is the Vice President of the Las Cruces public schools board of education she says she is not surprised - Every lunch time shes students at Las Cruces High School flock to a buffet of different fast food restaurants near the school.
“There is a Taco Bell, there is a McDonalds across the street, there is a pizza-place I don’t know the name of it and everything is within a block of the campus” she says.
Her children and grandchildren went to Las Cruces High School and she says if cheap unhealthy food so close to the school has been a recipe for disaster
“Drinking a lot of soda and eating hamburgers everyday is just not the best things to do sometimes “ she says.
A study from National Bureau of Economic Research study found the rate of obesity 5.2% higher in schools within 176 yards of fast food restaurants.
So when a retail development was proposed outside of the otherwise isolated Centennial high school, near Tortugas mountain, Flores took a stand to oppose it.
She is working with New Mexico State University Health Nutrition specialist Kari Bachman in a campaign to implement a healthy food zone around Centennial High school.
“What that would do is basically specify how close too schools retail food establishments can be located. The idea is that we want to give students healthy options that are close by their schools, not unhealthy options" she says.
Dona Ana County Director of Community of development Daniel Hortert says healthy food zones sound great in theory, but right now specifics on implementing such a zone are poorly defined.
“We just don’t know where or what this means, even in out search around the country is very limited. Most places that have proposed it - Austin Texas is one, have shot it down, their like no!' He says.
Bachman says Centennial High School isolated location is currently protecting students.
‘Right now we don’t have any retail food establishments around the high school so students basically don’t have any temptations to be eating foods that aren't healthy for them’ she says.
Bachman says it should stay this way and says the Las Cruces Public schools has been allowing students with nutrition related health problems to transfer to Centennial High School from schools surrounded by fast food restaurants like Las Cruces High school.
Hortert says he is not opposed to the idea of a healthy food zone, but not before less drastic and more effective avenues to encourage healthy lifestyles within schools have been considered.
‘We did visit Centennial high school they do have a revolving fast door menu. It could be like Chik-Fil-A, it could be the pizza guy, could be a hamburger salesman. They rotate that menu in the cafeteria on a daily basis, its there!’ He says.
A request for commercial zoning near Centennial has not yet been approved. Hortert says until a tangible plan has been submitted to the County a healthy food zone will not factor in to any zoning evaluation.
The healthy food zone coalition is working to flesh out and formalize a plan but Flores worries that by the time that happens commercial development will already by approved.
“People are just waiting. I know the developer that is across the street from the school is also interested in doing this. I mean these folks are developers, they are interested in making money".
Flores says once fast food restaurants are there, there will be no going back