I am so excited to be including a fellow blogger (and now author) in today’s post. Sarah Wu, the woman behind the persona “Mrs. Q,” went undercover as a teacher so she could eat school lunch for a year and blog about it! Her project has been widely recognized, including a nod from Jamie Oliver, and last year she revealed her true identity with the launch of her book bearing the same name as her blog, Fed up with Lunch. I started following “Mrs. Q” early on and was thrilled to be able to meet her in person at a food blogging conference (yes, those things exist) because she is clearly bringing some much-needed attention to an extremely important issue.
I asked Sarah to share with us how her project got started, as well as what each of us can do to take action in our own schools. But before we dive right in I have to share some of the more startling facts from her book, which was a great read by the way. The way the book is written it flows more like a novel, but at the same time you take away some critical information like the following…
- Sarah always assumed that the school “chicken nuggets were fried pieces of plain chicken breast meat … [but] chicken nuggets are only about 50 percent chicken.” She says places like McDonald’s boast about using “all white meat chicken, but they don’t say what else is in those nuggets.”
- “Some school pizzas have 62 ingredients.” (pictured below)
- According to USDA regulations “a small container of fries counted as a vegetable.”
- “Studies have shown that children who suffer from poor nutrition during the brain’s most formative years score much lower on tests … [yet] the school lunch program has no ties with the Department of Education.”
About Fed Up with Lunch
Guest Post by Sarah Wu
It all started when I forgot my lunch in the fall of 2009. As a speech-language pathologist for Chicago public schools, I rarely spent time with kids in the cafeteria. I really hadn’t paid attention to what was happening in the cafeteria. But on that fateful day I wandered down to the cafeteria and paid three dollars for a “bagel dog” meal. It was a weird hot dog/bagel combination – kind of like you might see in a mall, but the school food version, which was soggy and bizarre. It came with a cup of processed fruit and six little tater tots, the USDA-approved fruit and vegetable respectively. I was truly appalled. Where had I been this whole time while my students had been eating this stuff?
I tried to move on after eating that meal, but it was hard for me to shake it. After a couple months, I ended up deciding to do something bold: to eat school lunch for a year (the calendar year of 2010) and chronicle the experience on my blog (fedupwithlunch.com) with pictures. But I didn’t want to risk my job so I blogged anonymously. So I ate 162 school lunches – and then I wrote a book about it, Fed Up with Lunch: How One Anonymous Teacher Revealed the Truth About School Lunches –And How We Can Change Them!
Even though now it feels like school lunch reform has always been a part of my life, it hasn’t always. In fact, back then I really didn’t know anything about the food at all. I ate healthy food, but I believed that it didn’t really matter what you ate as long as you didn’t eat too much junk food or fast food. Looking back I believe that kind of outlook was necessary for me to eat a full year of school lunches. Now I know that food is not “just” food. It’s essential to health, learning, and even how you feel day-to-day.
If you are feeling inspired by my school food journey, here are some of my suggestions to get involved in school lunch reform in your community:
- Fact Find about Your School’s School Lunch Program – Is school lunch managed by school staff members or a company? Are meals made on site or trucked in and warmed up? How are the lunch lines set up? How much time do kids get to eat? What percentage of the school’s population participate?
- Get Involved at Your Child’s School – Join the PTA/PTO or if you are already a member, do more. There’s no substitute for being there and seeing what is happening with school food. Is there a School Wellness Committee at your child’s school? School Wellness Committees focus not only on nutrition at school but fitness activities like recess. If a school’s lunch service is offering fresh, healthy food, maybe candy fundraisers have gotten out of hand and the wellness committee can start there.
- Investigate the School’s Community Partners – What partnerships does the school already have with the community? Any restaurants, organizations, or hospitals? Are there ways to increase healthy influences on the students? One of my former schools had a relationship with McDonald’s. Suggest a partnership with a locally-owned restaurant or one that offers healthier options to kids.
- Fight for Recess Before Lunch – Numerous studies have shown that a simple schedule change of moving recess to immediately before lunch makes a difference. Nurse visits in the afternoon decrease (playing hard after eating is tough on the tummy) and so does food waste at lunch (many kids throw away their lunches so that they can get more time running around). Many schools I have worked in have no recess (take a breath, that’s true!) so making sure that your child’s school doesn’t scrimp on playtime might be a great place to start.
- Push for Salad Bars – Let’s empower kids to make their own veggie choices. Instead of having limp, overcooked broccoli plopped on their trays, kids do better when they get a chance to choose their own veggies and even check out what their more adventurous peers sample at the salad bar. Many kids don’t get exposure to fresh veggies at home.
Sarah Wu blogs at http://fedupwithlunch.com. She spent a year as the anonymous “Mrs. Q” eating school lunch and documented what she saw at school using her cell phone. Her 2011 book is Fed Up with Lunch: How One Anonymous Teacher Revealed the Truth About School Lunches –And How We Can Change Them! She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.