It's lunchtime in a North Side high school, and the cafeteria lines snake into the hall. One line leads to fish nuggets, iceberg lettuce and canned peaches. Another is for burgers and breaded chicken patty sandwiches.
But the longest line leads to lunch workers grabbing paper dishes full of yellow corn chips, topping them with a ball of ground meat and then smothering the ensemble in hot orange cheese product.
Nachos, once an occasional indulgence at the ballpark or a festival, have become a staple entree in the Chicago Public Schools and other districts. The dish is on the menu every day in the city's high schools and regularly offered to younger students as well.
As the official school year winds down, child health advocates are turning their attention to Washington, where Congress is gearing up to debate the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act. They say changes to the law, renewed every five years, present the best chance to put healthier food than nachos on school lunch trays.
The act essentially defines the standards, funding and guidelines for school lunch and health policy. With Barack Obama as president, many observers have hopes of significant reforms.
"The issue of school food made three or four sentences in his presidential platform on health. I mean when was the last time that happened?" said Rochelle Davis, executive director of the Chicago-based Healthy Schools Campaign.
Giving kids nachos for lunch may seem surprising in a district that serves neighborhoods where childhood obesity rates are more than double the national average. But nachos, despite being loaded with salt, fat and calories, may just may be the perfect food under the National School Lunch Program.
They are cheap and easy to prepare, which is important in school systems with dwindling numbers of working kitchens, minimally trained labor and only about $1 to spend per meal. The dish uses at least two agricultural commodities that form the backbone of the lunch program, corn and meat. And students will happily eat nachos daily -- key in a system that financially rewards companies when kids choose to eat their food.
CPS lunch officials have made some positive changes in the last two years, including removing deep fryers, expanding its breakfast program and offering local vegetables to students twice a week.
Indeed, on CPS-guided visits to school cafeterias, the Tribune saw children eating reduced-fat pizza, some vegetables and even a popcorn-shrimp salad. But on other independent visits, hundreds of children were carrying trays of nachos, tater tots and chocolate milk to their seats.
In Chicago elementary schools, nachos are second only to cheese pizza in meals served, despite being offered only half as often. In high schools, nachos are also No. 2, just behind chicken patty sandwiches.
The district recently switched to whole-grain fried chips for its nachos and added chicken to the ground meat, but eating the nachos still means taking in 471 calories, 25.3 grams of fat and 1,104 milligrams of sodium.
Add the tater tots, chocolate milk and an apple common on school lunch trays, and the total reaches about 923 calories, 37 grams of fat and 1,470 milligrams of sodium. Each figure is about half or more of the daily allowance recommended in federal dietary guidelines for moderately active children ages 9 to 13.
Serving this kind of food to kids isn't just unhealthy in the short term; it can permanently affect children's eating habits, said Dr. David Kessler, a pediatrician and former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.
"Foods layered and loaded with fat and salt such as nachos can condition their behavior for a lifetime," said Kessler, whose recent book "The End of Overeating" details the scientific studies behind his assertions.
"You're setting them up for a lifetime of overeating, excess weight and profound health consequences."
About 100,000 Chicago public high school students, 80 percent of whom qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, can choose nachos as an entree every day. That idea shocked three national school lunch policy experts who were under the impression nachos were restricted to a la carte programs that sell food outside the lunchroom.
CPS' food service provider is Chartwells Thompson, which caters most of the district's lunchrooms. It contracts with another provider, Preferred, to serve schools with no working kitchen. Bob Bloomer, regional head for Chartwells, said his meals, on average, meet the nutritional requirements of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Bloomer also said he has worked hard to bring fresh and frozen local vegetables to Chicago students this year. On Tribune visits, however, few took the vegetables and even fewer actually ate them. Students complained about the lack of taste.
A little salt might help. But according to Chartwells Thompson nutritionist Robin Levy, CPS workers are not allowed to add any to the carrots, peas, corn and green beans they serve to the students.
Although everyone agrees vegetables are a hard sell, Bloomer said "vegetable participation doubles when we bring in the fresh vegetables, especially the corn." Many kids did tell the Tribune they prefer the sweet corn and raw carrots when they are served.
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Bloomer also noted that his cafeterias have to compete with nearby fast-food restaurants and convenience stores. At Lane Tech College Preparatory High School, he said, "you can go next door to the Jewel ... and see them buying a bag of chips and the 20-ounce soda for lunch.
"You can say what you want about school lunches, but we never serve them that," Bloomer said.
The district's top official in charge of school lunches, Louise Esaian, never spoke with the Tribune by phone despite weeks of requests.
In an e-mail, Esaian stated: "We are committed to providing healthy choices for our schools, but we also have to balance our nutritional choices with the demands of parents and students; there are also economic and budgetary realities that we must consider."
That climate means budgets and students' preferences largely dictate the menu, a situation Toni Liquori finds absurd.
"It's the one place in the school where adults are not in charge," said Liquori, who heads School Food FOCUS, a coalition of big-city school districts working for change. "In the lunchroom we let children make the decisions about whether they will eat healthy food or nachos today, but teachers don't ask kids if they want to study history or play video games, today."
The reason, as Liquori points out, is that reimbursement of vendors is tied directly to food sales.
As Congress weighs the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, advocates with the Healthy Schools Campaign are making two main suggestions: increase reimbursement rates and encourage the distribution of healthier food.
Districts are still given only about $2.57 to pay for each meal. After covering labor, overhead and equipment, that leaves only about $1 for food. The campaign wants rates to cover the full costs of serving meals that meet the federally sponsored Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Because the school lunch program, run by the USDA, is highly dependent on low-cost agricultural commodity products, the campaign is calling on the agency to broaden its commodity selection.
The goal would be to cut back on high-fat, high-sodium processed food and increase the availability of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
To keep students happy while breaking their nacho habit, one expert suggested designing "smart lunchrooms" that encourage children to make better food choices while still letting them feel in control.
Brian Wansink, a food behavior specialist and author of "Mindless Eating," said that might mean making the nachos less accessible -- and certainly not a choice for a subsidized daily lunch. "Maybe they could be offered three days a week on an unpredictable schedule," he said.
Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) said he was not surprised to hear nachos were so popular in Chicago Public Schools but was adamant that change is needed.
"Now that we know better, we should do better. ... That's what my mother always said," said Davis, who has signed on to a March bill calling for higher nutritional standards in all food served in schools.
"We know that many children eat at least two meals a day in the public school lunchroom in Chicago and we could provide them with things that have far more nutritional value, especially with the level of obesity among our Chicago public school students," he said.
The Tribune paid a final lunchroom visit Wednesday to Von Steuben High School, where dozens of kids took foam trays loaded with nachos, fries, chocolate milk and canned fruit. It's the meal freshman Ellyanne Celino said she eats five days a week. "I just like nachos in general," she said.
Lunch room manager Patty Liberty grimaced. Next year, she pointed out, Von Steuben will launch a pilot lunch program whose prospective menu features panini, tossed salads and dressings "using real olive oil every day."
But that pioneering menu also includes a familiar daily offering: