Elena Peralta and her son Isaiah.

A bright pink stroller greets me as I make my way towards the entrance of McDonald’s on Mission and 24th streets. Behind it, a mother holds the door open for me and smiles timidly. I am overwhelmed by the smell of French fries. It is 3 p.m. and the room is filled with mothers and their children.

My eyes gravitate towards Micaela Cardoza, 19, who sits with her daughter Marisela, 2, in a booth in the corner.

“I grew up on this stuff,” Cardoza said, as she pointed to the fries and chicken nuggets on the table.

“In the fourth grade I was teased for my weight and that’s why I go overboard with my daughter’s nutrition. If she ever came back from school crying, it would be a problem,” the young social worker and college student said as she wiped sauce off of Marisela’s tiny chin.

Cardoza’s childhood days are over, and now her trips to McDonald’s are only a once-a-month treat.

Cardoza attributes the start of her nutritional awareness to that fourth grade experience and her education became more formal in a series of nutrition classes at Hilltop High in the Mission. After learning about diet and how it can affect a child’s development and behavior, she has seen the truth of it play out when she pays attention to her daughter’s physiological responses.

“I give her fruits and vegetables in a variety of colors to keep her energized and she wants to play and walk with me at the park,” she says. “I’ve also seen her demolish a candy bar and then she is out like two seconds later.”

Out she was. Just minutes after finishing her meal, Marisela’s small body slumps forward onto her mother’s chest. Her curtain of eyelashes were more noticeable now, as she slept.

“See?” said Cardoza, who plans on becoming a registered nurse and attending UC Davis next year. She gathered Marisela’s things and took her sleeping beauty home.

As I sat alone and enjoyed my giant sweet iced tea, a yellow school bus rolled by. School’s out, and the kids will soon claim the restaurant. The teens had already started.

Three teenage girls, who looked about 14, sat behind me in the booth. All three of them were texting furiously on their cell phones. Their heads pop up simultaneously as each patron enters the restaurant, but they quickly return to their phones. Across the way, two boys their age, one sporting a Lincoln High sweatshirt, debate about one of the most important questions for a teenage boy: What’s for dinner?

The two boys waited in line next to a teenage girl who looked about 16 and was sitting with her mother, her grandmother and another relative. She occasionally looks up to scan the room and then returns to her phone as her grandmother and mother talk to each other. Just 10 feet away, one teenage boy sitting with his two friends, who are sisters, laugh. Three teens and not a cell phone in sight. Not in their hands, not on the table. There wasn’t any food on their table either.

“At school a lot of conversations revolve around the phone and if you don’t have a phone out, you just sit there,” said the 15-year-old girl from Lincoln High.

“It’s sad [to be ignored at lunch],” added the teenage boy who is a senior at John O’Connell. He played with his straw’s wrapper and flashed a smile just long enough for me to notice his braces.

“We come here because everybody comes here,” said the older of the sisters as she adjusted her glasses.

“If I look at a place and see mostly adults, I won’t go inside,” the younger sister said. “Everyone [from school] just gets off the bus when it passes by here.”

For Elena Peralta, this was also an after-school stop, but a different kind. McDonald’s was a chance to recuperate after a busy day filled with shoe shopping for her son, Isaiah, 9, who is a third grader at Lafayette Elementary School.

“He needed new shoes so we went straight to the store after school and then came here,” said Peralta, as a four-inch Batman from the kids’ meal flies past her face.

She swats it away and Isaiah laughs. He’s making sound effects for his figurine now. In his Marvel comics T-shirt featuring Flash and other superheroes, he creates a world for himself in his imagination while his mother rests. He’s full of energy and hasn’t bothered to take off his backpack. He eats his cheeseburger with one hand.

She watches him for a moment, puts her arm around him, raises her eyebrow and adds, “I hardly ever give him sugar. This is not an everyday thing. Maybe twice a week I bring him.”

The doors opened and a mother in navy blue scrubs walks in with her two daughters. Behind her, two men in their 30s with their daughters in tow make their way in.

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Guisel Contreras credits her keen sense of smell for her love of food. Her super-sniffer led her off the street and into Dandelion Chocolate, where the “Madagascar” won her heart. “I’m excited to go beyond the typical [restaurant] review.” Follow her nose on Mission Local.

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  1. That corner is such a blighted mess. Having a McDonald’s there does not help at all. Sad it is the only somewhat safe place to go for children & teenagers. Also sad a 19 year old having a 2 year old child. Definitely see the grit at this place.