'Fast food' gets a whole new meaning

Which is faster, a zucchini or a banana? Which makes better wheels, oranges or apples? These might seem like strange questions, unless you're racing in the Lunch Box Derby. Then the answers can make the difference between victory and fruit salad.

The sixth annual Lunch Box Derby is now under way across the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. More than 10,000 fourth- and fifth-graders are building race cars out of fruits and vegetables to try to win a trip to the finals in March.

The rules make it sound easy. Build a car out of fruits, vegetables, bamboo skewers, toothpicks, and a rubber band. Roll it down a ramp, and the car that goes farthest wins. Four national finalists win a trip to Washington, D.C., to compete with teams from the United Kingdom and Canada.

Last year, three fifth-graders from Lynch Wood Elementary School in Portland, Ore., won the finals when their car rolled 31 feet, 10 inches on its second try. Allison Chambers, Zachary Jacobs, and Cindy Wilson won $1,000 for their school and a $200 savings bond for each team member.

They began with a race at their school for teams from two fifth-grade classes. They soon found that some food items race better than others. "Things can get pretty messy in the first runs," said their teacher, Gina Rafter. "Some cars never even make it to the end of the ramp. They go off the side and end in a big splat. But everyone has a lot of fun and there is a lot of learning going on." Students learn about physics, nutrition, engineering, and teamwork.

Students start by learning about their building materials. "Some kids had never seen a rutabaga or turnip," Ms. Rafter says. Samples of different kinds of produce were brought into class. Students discussed the advantages and disadvantages of such things as high fiber and ripeness in their racing materials. Then the students were divided into teams and drew plans.

Next they brought their produce to class, assembled cars, and took some practice runs. Just keeping the car in one piece can be difficult. If something falls off during the run, the distance traveled is measured to that point. Most of the time, that isn't a problem, since cars that are not firmly put together fall to pieces when they hit the bottom of the ramp.

Allison, Zachary, and Cindy started out using squash for wheels. Later they switched to apples and oranges. Their car traveled the farthest during the school competition, and the results of the race were sent to the Washington State Apple Commission, which sponsors the Lunch Box Derby. Last March they received word that they were finalists.

The Portland team's car didn't do well on its first run. Before the final run, the team decided that one of the oranges used for a wheel was a little soft. The "tire" was changed, and the second run won the title.

Cars in the finals are judged not only on distance, but also on creativity. The judges consider how well the fruits or vegetables are used on the car. Sticking a radish on the front as a hood ornament, for example, is not as useful as using radishes as hub caps to keep the wheels on. (You can get a better look at the winning car in the illustration below, at left.)

Whether or not a car is a finalist, the race is still fun. And if your car doesn't win the contest, it won't be a total waste. You could always have it for lunch.

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