Crossing the road of fried chicken

Stephen Jones pays a visit to an FE college that's trying to lead students away from a dietary disaster

The man behind the counter at the fried chicken shop looks bemused. "You're doing what?"

"I'm researching the eating habits of college students and finding out what they think about healthy eating."

"Healthy eating?" From the look on his face, it's clear that he's never actually thought of putting the two words together in the same phrase.

"Do they come in here?" I ask. "The students from the college?"

"Yes, yes," he says excitedly. "They come. Look." He points to the illuminated sign above his gleaming phalanx of friers. It's the classic combo deal: fried chicken, big chips, large cola - all for just pound;1.99. "A bargain, no?"

"That doesn't look very healthy to me," I observe.

He scratches his head, waves towards the rest of the menu: hamburger, double hamburger, chicken burger, fish burger... "All with chips, right boss?"

But up the road, inside Hackney community college's Shoreditch campus, it's another story altogether. The college is located in London's East End, not far from Jamie Oliver's innovative Fifteen restaurant. It's clear straight away that Colin McKenzie, the catering manager, shares many of his more famous colleague's concerns about youngsters and their eating habits.

He runs over with me the choices available to the 1,500 or so students who pass through his canteen every day. "Grab and go" food such as jacket potatoes, salads, baguettes and sandwiches can be found in the Cafe Ten section. And there's freshly cooked dishes "from around the world" on offer in the intriguingly named Manhattan Diner - today featuring chicken madras and rice, and smoked haddock on a bed of spinach.

"Some students still stick to their traditional choices," he tells me. "But a lot of the more sensible ones are looking at changing their diet."

The students themselves get a say in what's on the menu. Mr McKenzie meets a group of them every month to talk over any new ideas they've come up with.

Jill Lewis, the college's support service manager, also enthuses about the health-giving properties of the food served.

"All our sandwiches have nutrition information on them, including the calorie count," she says. "There are five different salads every day, and we always have a choice of fruit."

But then, of course, while you can take a horse to water, can you force it to drink?

The canteen is thronged with lunchtime diners and I wander among them to see what they are eating.

Choosing a table at random, I see a sight that would gladden the heart of my friend back in the takeaway down the road.

The three GCSE students sitting there are eating, respectively, burger and chips, burger and chips and, er... burger and chips. One of them, Sanjay, confesses that he eats fast food every day of the week, and that in between meals he snacks on crisps, chocolate and fizzy drinks.

He knows what he ought to be eating - "fruit and veg" - but for now says that he doesn't worry too much about what his food intake might be doing to his body.

His friends, Olu and Tiffany, feel much the same. Both eat junk food most days, though Tiffany confides that it does sometimes make her stop and think, "Am I eating healthily or not?"

She says her favourite food is actually what her mother cooks: curried goat and rice with peas.

There are a number of other candidates around, too, for the "heart attack meal of the week" award.

Shumi Sultana, an 18-year-old on a BTec national business course, is busily eating her large portion of chips from a polystyrene container.

At home, she says, she eats more of a range of things such as rice and curried lentils, and she works out in a local gym.

She says: "I'd like to lose weight, but my mum won't let me. She says I'm too skinny already."

At an adjoining table I find childcare student Shania Williams. She's eating soup, although she seems to have left most of it. "I feel sick today," she confesses. "Normally, I'd be eating a burger, chicken and chips or a pattie."

Shania also knows what a good diet should consist of, but finds it hard to resist the siren voices of the junk food providers.

"The trouble is that it tastes so nice," she says.

But what of those "sensible students" Mr McKenzie speaks of?

Alex Babb would put himself firmly in that category. He is a keen sprinter and runs for the local Victoria Park Harriers, so keeping his body in shape is important to him. He is in his second year studying sport science.

Clearly, he carefully considers what he eats.

"There's not any unhealthy foods - it's just about proportion," he says.

Although he eats the occasional burger, he also eats pasta, rice, fish and plenty of white meat.

Rosie Fernyhough thinks hard about what she eats, too.

"Diet is important," she says. "If you don't eat a healthy diet, you don't feel well."

Part way through her first year of science A-levels, Rosie says that she likes cous-cous and roasted vegetables as well as more traditional fare such as Sunday roast. Today she's tucking in to one of those dishes from around the world: chicken madras.

"I know Indian food can be fatty sometimes," she says. "But hey, it's Friday."

So what can we conclude about college students and their diet? The catering manager at another large FE college draws a distinction between the younger and older students he serves.

The teenagers, he says, mostly go for fizzy drinks, sweets, crisps and other unhealthy choices.

"I think the trouble is that they've been brought up in a McDonald's culture. By the time they get here they've already developed a taste for salty foods flavoured with additives like monosodium glutamate.

"They'll turn their noses up at baked chicken served with a nice sauce, then go down the road and buy fried chicken for a pound."

Maybe the answer is for more colleges to follow the lead taken by Huddersfield New college, which has joined with local schools to promote healthy living in a variety of ways. What they call Fruity Fridays in Huddersfield is just one aspect of bringing the message home to students.

Another activity is condom distribution - though there's no indication that the two events are linked!

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