Life in a Hot Frito Factory

When I was a kid, every school I ever attended gave me a free lunch because I was poor and skinny, conditions which, alas, do not persist to this day. While I am still poor, I am no longer skinny.

I ate all the free food they gave me not because it was good but beCause I was hungry. I would have eaten dog food had they slapped it down on my tray and, in fact, I think that's what the Thursday meat loaf was all about.

Rather than growing up grateful for the system's efforts at keeping me alive, however, I grew up resenting school cafeterias. It wasn't just the food but the fact that every morning old lady Rangel would announce loudly that all poor children should line up against the south wall for their free-lunch tickets.

That was humiliating enough, but in addition she was a religious nut and with every lunch ticket handed out she would throw her head back and shout "Praise the Lord," which meant I had to hear "Praise the Lord" about 16 times every morning.

I have therefore over the years developed a hard-nosed skepticism toward religion, education and free lunches, and I am not too sure about south walls either.

I mention this only because cafeterias are in the news. The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District is complaining that its food service is losing money due to the fact that students are eating off campus in ever-increasing numbers.

But unlike my generation of poor and skinny Americans, the reason today's affluent students avoid school cafeterias is not because the food is bad or even that the service is a little slow.

The district's food service people, I am told, are doing everything in their power to offer nutritional lunches in a tasty balanced diet served amid cheerful and amiable surroundings. That, however, is precisely what they should not be doing. Kids hate nutritional food and balanced diets.

What they want are double-burgers of questionable substance and French fries dripping with grease and canned soft drinks smoking with whatever chemicals will someday rot their teeth and turn their hair green; "neat stuff," as a Malibu co-ed with a deep tan and empty blue eyes explained it to me.

Let me say first of all that I am not opposed to junk food in modest proportions. Everyone has moments when a craving for Fritos, for example, exceeds even the hot, throbbing instinct to procreate, and I am no exception.

Sometimes, in fact, I worry as I grow older that Fritos might, at some stage, become more important than sex in my life, so I make an extra effort to maintain them in the proper balance. I have learned that it is possible to have your sex and Fritos too, although, of course, on different occasions.

Speaking of Fritos, I have learned that one of the more popular lunch places for Santa Monica High students is a Taco Bell about three blocks away. I asked a few of the students able to communicate in simple terms why they preferred the Taco Bell menu to the tuna surprise being offered that day in the school cafeteria.

Several of them responded with OhmygodIdunno which, loosely translated, meant they had no idea, they simply were following a primeval instinct that drove them upstream toward Hot Sauce Heaven.

One young man, however, who had evolved to a less primitive form of verbal syntax, did say that the cafeteria food was dull, flat and predictable. He was eating something red and lumpy on a giant flour tortilla at the time, and when I asked him what it was, he stammered in confusion so I backed off. Well, it was a tough question.

The only reason I asked was because I have a daughter who, during her high school years, ate what appeared to be the same thing for lunch every day. It wasn't as lumpy, but then it dripped more. Possibly they added the lumps in order to tidy up the product.

My second daughter, who was less ethnically oriented, ate hamburgers through high school and, years later, is still addicted to them. It is my belief, although she denies it, that Linda has not, in fact, had anything but a hamburger to eat for the past 15 years, although my wife tells me she has been seen eating pizza once or twice.

Santa Monica High, as it turns out, also has a Jack in the Box and a pizza place called Picasso's within swaggering distance of the campus, where the little dears can stuff themselves until they fall down screaming in the street.

I suppose, however, if that's what the kids want, that's what the school cafeteria is going to have to offer if it hopes to break even.

Forget balanced diet and good nutrition. Set up a few booths that offer double dog-burgers, chemical kick in a can and a red, lumpy substance on a flour tortilla smothered in hot sauce.

If they survive high school lunches, they can move on to a sensible balance of sex and Fritos, the way God intended for us to live.

A little Praise the Lord! probably wouldn't hurt either.

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