By Ada Kulesza
Her mother works at a factory: Johnson & Johnson, in the shipping and packaging department. Her father lives in Florida. "I don't know him," she says.
The young woman we call Adriana is an 18-year-old living in North Philadelphia, near where North Broad Street meets Lehigh Avenue. She wears braces, and she's petit and slender. Very slender. Which is a surprise, because for the past two weeks she's been sending me emails about the colossal amount of burgers, pizzas, hoagies, sodas and cookies she can ingest.
Her Day 4 tally, for instance, went like this: "One large plain slice of pizza. McDonald's 10-piece nugget, large fries, large Coke and a honey mustard snack wrap. Barbequed chicken, mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, chicken gravy, broccoli, orange juice, half a piece of cheesecake. Nine chocolate-chip cookies with whole milk. A large bag of sour-cream-and-onion potato chips."
Adriana is a walking testimony to a nationwide trend in eating habits among poor children and teens. They are more likely to consume larger amounts of fats, salts, calories, and processed food per dollar than their middle-class counterparts. It's the opposite of what the notion of "poverty" entails. Two generations ago, America's poor were starving. Today, they consume more calories than the middle class and obesity among the poor is a recognized health crisis.
Everyone likes to talk about what teenagers eat. We took it a step further: we asked them what they ate. Using text messages sent over a two-week period, two teenagers catalogued details of their diet. In exchange for them keeping a thorough list, we paid them a fee of $50 and agreed not to use their real names.
We call them Adriana and Charlie. They have many similarities.
They are both 18. Charlie doesn't know his father, either. They are energetic and good-looking kids. Charlie, is African American, has clear, latte-colored skin and green eyes, and broad shoulders emerging from a boyish frame
Adriana is a tiny Latina, with long black hair and unremitting cheerfulness. They're in the same senior class at a high school in South Philly. Both live with single mothers and two siblings.
When it comes to his eating habits, though, Charlie is a world away from Adriana. An excerpt from his food diary:
Day 11: Pancakes with maple syrup and bacon. Grilled chicken breast with corn on the cob. Chicken Parmesan and string beans.
Charlie's mother works as a Unit Secretary at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital, a job that usually pays around $11 to $15 an hour - not astounding, but more than factory work. She works from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, and one weekend every month, so she's around to cook and shop more. Charlie's siblings are 19 and 20, grown enough to work, and cook, themselves.
In contrast, Adriana's mother works longer hours, often evenings, and she has two younger children aged 9 and 10. She collects food stamps to round out the family pantry.
Other than a fondess for pizza, Charlie does not fit the stereotype of the typical male teen when it comes to eating. His food diary has little evidence of junk food. He keep salt and fat intake low. He even regularly eats fruit.
For instance, his Day 1 text message reads: "Breakfast: Special K cereal with whole milk. A banana, apple juice. Lunch: a small box of plain pizza. Two banana Ensures [protein shakes]."
Here are another three typical days of Charlie's diet:
Day 4: A bowl of plain oatmeal, graham crackers and orange juice. Fried fish and rice. A pork chop, cabbage, and macaroni and cheese.
Day 10: A bowl of plain oatmeal and orange juice. A chicken sandwich. Steak with rice and beans.
At first I thought he was omitting things, but he swore he was not. He's an athlete -- a boxer and a power lifter . He's into a "My Body is a Temple" phase.
"Fried food, I don't buy that," he explained later. "I want to gain weight so I want to up my carb intake." He prefers ham and beef roasts. He also alternates with his mother on cooking duties.
With Adriana, on the other hand, I had to ask, "Are you sure you weren't sharing your food?"
Nope, she grinned "It was all me."
Day 6: A bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch with whole milk, a sunny side-up-eggs on white toast. Three sunny-side-up with salt, pepper and ketchup and a large fry. One-third of a large bag each of sour cream and onion chips, Doritos, and hot Cheetos, with a slice of chocolate cake and whole milk. Baked macaroni and cheese, four pieces of fried chicken, rice, and potato salad.
Day 7: Two cinnamon pancakes, scrambled eggs and sausage. Three and a half slices of plain pizza and 10 buffalo wings. Half a cheese steak and half a large bottle of Pepsi.
Day 9: Scrambled eggs, bacon and a small coffee. At McDonald's - three chicken strips, six nuggets, a large fry, half a ranch snack wrap, small Coke. A small bag of hot Doritos and a TastyKake. Chicken soup, fried potatoes with pork and white rice, chocolate cake, two chocolate-chip cookies, and a glass of whole milk.
Adriana is in charge of cooking duties most nights for her brother and sister, and frequently does the grocery shopping. She uses the family's food stamp card to shop . She prefers cooking mashed potatoes and eggs, her little brother's favorite. She and her boyfriend often eat meals together at pizzerias and fast food places in her neighborhood.
Adriana lives near the North Philadelphia SEPTA station on the Market-Frankford line, a neighborhood chock-full of take-out joints and fast food restaurants. It is a paradise of fatty, processed, high-sugar and salted food.
Charlie lives in the southeast corner of South Philadelphia, an ethnic enclave becoming renown for its for its steaks, pizzerias, taquerias, and a wealth of authentic Southeast Asian eateries.
Not that Charlie goes for that exotic fare.
A given day's menu is as plain as white bread. Day 3: One bowl of Special K cereal with 2 percent milk, a banana and apple juice. Ham sandwich with a salad (no dressing) and cranberry juice. Baked chicken, pasta, garlic bread, and (the ever-present) banana Ensure
Unexpectedly, he's much more body-conscious -- and therefore food conscientious -- than his female classmate.
"I was fat when I was younger," he confesses. "I started boxing when I was 13, and when I was around 16, I started worrying about what my body looks like - because of girls."
Adreanna's Day 5 food intake yielded 2,727 calories and 126 grams of fat: a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich, half a sausage-and-cheese croissant, a can of ginger ale [which she often drinks for breakfast], a slice of plain pizza, an Italian hoagie, grilled chicken breast, fried rice and sausage, a slice of chocolate cake, and three chocolate-chip cookies with a glass of whole milk.
Charlie tends to keep his calorie intake level day to day. Adriana's appetite fluctuated. There were days when her list of foods eaten went on and on. Then, there were others, such as Day 10: One slice of white toast with grape jelly. A chicken sandwich with chips. A bowl of cinnamon oatmeal followed by cookies and cream-flavored ice cream.
Or Day 13, when she ate relatively lightly -- for her: An Italian hoagie, five slices of plain pizza, some French fries, a can of ginger ale, and a bottle of Pepsi.
Adreanna aspires to be a nurse and go to Drexel. She admits, however, that she's not a model student. "A lot of teens, we do stupid things," she said, referring to past transgressions, "I changed my life."
She's aware that her diet isn't the healthiest, but she professes to exercise, at least. "I'll lock my bedroom door, turn on some music and dance around the room - maybe once or twice a week," she said, explaining her exercise regimen.
Charlie jogs, lifts weights, trains for boxing and works out five days a week.
He also wants to also wants to go into the health field, as a fitness trainer. He'll enroll at the Community College of Philadelphia in the fall.
So ends our diary of two teenage eaters. The daily lists aside, it's not hard to summarize the two.
If you are what you eat, Adriana is a piece of chocolate cake with fries on top and a Coke on the side. Charlie is a turkey and lettuce sandwich on white bread with -- as always -- banana Ensure.