The Nachos That Wouldn't Die: A Story Of School LunchesS

New Jersey parents are calling their kids' cafeteria fare "prison food" — and as anyone who's eaten lunch in our country's public schools knows, that's not actually far off. Exhibit A: nachos.

Atlantic City High School served only grilled cheese sandwiches for two days this week as a punishment for kids throwing food. And while they probably weren't as bad as "prison loaf," they probably weren't very nutritious either. Nor is most of the food kids get when they haven't misbehaved. As Jamie Oliver and now Time's Douglas McGray attest, schools often feed kids fast-food-style lunches, sometimes made up of ingredients the government's trying to get rid of. The results can be both unhealthy and pretty gross.

So, those nachos: when I was in junior high (in the Los Angeles public school system, in the mid-nineties) they were by far the most popular cafeteria item, trailed by the unfortunately named "Hot Big Long Doughnut." They were composed of tortilla chips, canned jalapenos, and thick layer of pale orange cheese. Said cheese was roughly the consistency of mayo, and it didn't harden as it cooled so much as congeal and develop a sort of skin. It was a lot like Nickelodeon Gak, which was also popular at the time. You may have seen such cheese at a movie theater or ballgame, but what you probably haven't seen is this: sometime in sixth grade, someone smeared the stuff all over the windows of the shop room, and that cheese stayed. Through sun, through rain, through the ravages of time, the cheese endured. When I came back for a visit in the middle of high school, it was still there. Yes, they had fed us something nature could not wash away.

Things are starting to change with the efforts of Oliver, Alice Waters, and Michelle Obama — and McGray talks to Amy Klein of Revolution Foods, the company dedicated to developing healthy, tasty school lunches that schools can actually afford. But the government reimburses schools just $2.68 for every free lunch provided to a low-income kid, and after labor and other costs, only about $1 is left for food. Figuring out how to bump this number higher — or how to entice enough middle-class kids back into the cafeteria so that their lunch dollars can help pay for free meals — will be tough. But since a childhood consuming perma-cheese has turned today's young adults into immortal mutant super-beings, we'll have plenty of time to work on it.

A Revolution In School Lunches [Time]
NJ School Serves Up Cheese Sandwich Punishment [AP, via CBS]