Fed Up With Lunch

Sarah Wu (aka “Mrs. Q”) was the anonymous teacher who ate, photographed, and blogged school lunch for a year to raise awareness about what kids are eating at school. In 2010, Mrs. Q ate 162 school lunches while working as a speech-language pathologist for Chicago Public Schools. Chronicle Books published a book about her experience, Fed Up with Lunch: The School Lunch Project: How One Anonymous Teacher Revealed the Ugly Truth About School Lunches – And How We Can Change Them! Mrs. Q revealed herself on “Good Morning America” and “The View” when the book was launched in October 2011. Now that it’s back to school time again, we wanted to check in with Sarah to find out more about the experience, and what has changed since the book was published a year ago.

What compelled you to act?

I felt that I couldn’t let what I was seeing at the school cafeteria go unseen by parents and community members who care about kids’ health. When I put the cell phone photos of the lunches I was eating – the same food my students were eating – on the internet, I felt that I had done my job as a whistleblower. I had no idea my photos would make my blog the poster child for school lunch reform and that everyone would want to know more about the anonymous “Mrs. Q.”

What were some of the things you ate? Was there a lunch that stands out?

What initially struck me about the food was that it came in a lot of packaging. Almost everything was sealed in little paper bowls with plastic or it was simply wrapped in plastic. My school had a kitchen and a cafeteria (some schools aren’t even that lucky), but the kitchen only reheated meals – there was little to no prep and no commercial dishwasher. Every day close to 98% of the 1,300 students in my school found their way through the lunch line – astonishing numbers of children living in poverty rely on school food as what could be their best meal of the day.

One of the first meals I ate consisted of a bagel dog, tater tots, and a fruit cup. I found out later that the school lunch regulations at the time considered the bagel dog as the protein and grain, the tater tots the vegetable, and the fruit cup was fruit, even though many of them have added sugar. Students sometimes complained of hunger in the mornings and when I started eating school lunch with them, I started feeling hunger come on right about 3pm when school was over. No wonder school kids were looking for unhealthy snacks after school.

The school lunch I enjoyed the most was called “Tex-Mex” – it was a bowl of seasoned ground turkey over rice, a side of refried beans, and some corn chips – it was the closest to real food that I saw in the cafeteria. The weekly menu offered cardboard rectangles called pizza, some kind of processed chicken product (nuggets or a chicken patty), and processed beef (hamburger, cheeseburger, Salisbury steak, Rib-b-que). The sodium content in the lunches had to be insanely high, but I was unable to get my hands on ingredient lists, which are proprietary information for the food service vendors.

Fruit offerings were fresh fruit sometimes, but when fruit is out of season it’s much cheaper to offer a little plastic fruit cup, fruit jello, or even a juice box, which counts as the UDSA-mandated fruit. The vegetables I watched the kids get on their tray were overcooked and limp. The food waste was staggering. I worried that my students weren’t getting exposed to fresh veggies at home and since that wasn’t happening at school, I wasn’t sure they knew how delicious veggies could be!

How have things been going since Fed Up With Lunch came out last year?

I’m so happy that I’m no longer anonymous! The six months following the book’s release, I was able to speak with groups all over the country from United Way in Dallas to Farm-to-School folks in Seattle about school food reform. I’m really concerned about the childhood obesity epidemic our country is experiencing. Part of that is kids don’t know that chicken nuggets aren’t real food.

We have more work ahead of us. What I wanted to accomplish with the blog was to raise awareness about what I saw in my own school. The book has allowed me to go beyond my raising awareness campaign, but also engage and debate the issues with people. I recently resigned my position with Chicago Public Schools to be more involved in my son’s life but I’m still focused on school food reform as I continue working with kids (as a speech pathologist).

Most parents who wonder or worry about their kids’ eating habits at school don’t think that there is much that they can to do change school food. What can parents do?

It does seem like there is a lot of apathy among both parents and teachers. We feel defeated because there’s a lot of junk in many schools. But just like every big problem, it’s a good idea to start small. Parents and teachers need to get more involved at school from joining the PTA/PTO, starting a School Wellness Committee to tackle nutrition and physical education, or attending a school board meeting. Or a parent can simply eat lunch with their child at school and observe the school cafeteria. October 17, 2012 is the “official” Take Your Parents to Lunch Day. Arrange a meeting with the principal or the PTA/PTO to discuss your school’s participation in the day.

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