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At the sound of the 10:45 bell on a rainy Thursday morning, the students of Merivale High School march in packs and pairs toward the beckoning signs promising fast food. How can any school cafeteria compete with this line-up: Pizza Pizza, Quiznos, Tim Hortons, Subway, Second Cup and a Metro grocery store, which opens its hot food counter at 11 a.m. and offers wedge fries for a cost-effective 99 cents. A Harvey's restaurant sits kitty-corner from the school, with pop music playing loudly.

McDonald's, a block away, remains the stop of choice, says Brendan, a Grade 11 student. He's picked a burger-fries combo today at Harvey's because of the weather, but on sunny days, they line up out the door at the House of Big Mac. Brendan says that he usually eats there three times a week. The school cafeteria? Maybe three times in two years.

"I play hockey, so I figure I burn it off," he shrugs.

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The students give all sorts of reasons why they avoid the cafeteria, and most are the same reasons students have always given: "It's for nerds." "The food is gross." "There's goop under the tables."

"They have whole wheat buns on their burgers," says Adam, 15.

"Nobody," Brendan says, "likes whole wheat buns."

Bring up nutrition and eyes roll. They've heard it before - at home or in class. Merivale High School has a cooking class, and yoga and exercise programs for students. "We try to teach kids about active healthy living," principal Patrick McCarthy says. But the teens have their excuses ready: They burn it off, they only do it a couple times a week, they don't eat like this at home. They have clearly absorbed the trans-fat heart-disease message, even if they aren't practising it.

Gordon, 16, sitting with Brendan and Adam, pops the last bit of burger in his mouth and vows that this will be his last one for a while - he needs to be in shape for soccer. "I just want to eat better. For the month of October, no McDonald's," he says. He is vague, however, on whether this ban includes Pizza Pizza next door.cDonald's, five Grade 10 girls have pooled their money to share a large fries and a McMini fried chicken sandwich. They saved $2 with a coupon. "You know you're gonna be fat, when you save McDonald's coupons," jokes Tamara, 14, who is dutifully eating a turkey sandwich that her mother made for her while donating her apple and grapes to the group, in exchange for some fries.

Most of their parents, the group says, know they eat off school property for lunch. One confession: "My mom thinks I go to Metro and get a salad."

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Erin Anderssen writes about mental health, social policy and family issues. More

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