It started with a bagel-dog, six Tater Tots, and a Jello-O cup. One day in October 2009, Sarah Wu, a speech pathologist in the Chicago Public School system forgot to bring her lunch to school. No big deal, she thought. I’ll buy lunch at the cafeteria. For three dollars, she bought the aforementioned bland and soggy combo meal. “I couldn’t believe this was the kind of food my students were being served,” she says, recalling how the bagel-dog left her “quietly burping her way through that memorable afternoon.”
Wu decided to channel her outrage by buying a school lunch every day for a calendar year—and then blogging about the experience. Under the pseudonym Mrs. Q, she launched Fed Up With Lunch: The School Lunch Project in January 2010. Each school day she would surreptitiously photograph the meal with her cell phone camera, then eat it and blog about her impressions. She was a glutton for punishment, as the project required choking down a revolting assortment of sugar- and salt-laden processed foods, which took a noticeable toll on her health.
Predictably, the meals (all served with a spork) left her sluggish and tired each afternoon—just like her students. And one evening she went home violently ill, courtesy of a “peanut butter and jelly sandwich” with a graham cracker crust. “It was an inch thick, like an ice-cream sandwich, but with peanut butter in there. For a few hours I was lying on the floor in the bathroom at home,” recalls Wu.
More insidious were the long-term effects. “My body got very mad. I think I was having system-wide inflammation from all the weird ingredients and artificial colors that they put in kids’ food. I’m not really comfortable talking about it, but I struggled with Irritable Bowel Syndrome,” she says, before noting that she was also diagnosed with asthma during the year.
On the plus side, Mrs. Q’s blog became an overnight sensation, attracting the attention of moms, food activists, and national media alike. She became a talking point in the world of school lunch reform, helping to expose what’s wrong with school lunch programs—and what can be done to improve them. “So much of the food being served to our kids is full of sodium fillers, sugar, and food dyes, which negatively affect performance, overall health, and knowledge of nutrition,” she says.
The success of the blog led to “Fed Up With Lunch” (Chronicle Books), in which Wu makes it abundantly clear that it’s not the so-called lunch ladies who are responsible for the shortcomings of the food. “Being a lunch lady is really rough work,” she notes. “It’s hot, there’s a lot of heavy lifting, and they frequently burn themselves.” But Wu—who ultimately decided to make her identity public—can understand why some lunch ladies get defensive. “When you feed somebody you create a relationship with them. So you take it personally when someone attacks the food,” noting that it pains her whenever her son criticizes her cooking.
In order to effect change, she says, administrators, teachers, parents, and kids alike need to pressure food service management companies to get them to provide healthier food—less chicken nuggets and other “mystery meats,” and more fresh, locally-grown produce. “These companies want the business of the schools, so you can make demands,” she says.
Meanwhile, individuals, non-profits, and charter schools across the country are working towards improving the state of affairs one lunchroom at a time. For example, at the Academy for Global Citizenship, a public charter school on the south side of Chicago, organic breakfasts and lunches are served daily, part of a comprehensive ‘green’ curriculum. And Ann Cooper (“The Renegade Lunch Lady”) has partnered with companies to raise funds for her Great American Salad Bar Project, which aims to get six-thousand salad bars into schools over three years.
Perhaps most notably, in the last chapter of “Fed Up With Lunch,” Wu provides suggestions for how to effect change in your own community, recognizing that there’s a tendency to become overwhelmed by the nature of this big, complex problem. “Everything you do to help schools get healthier has value,” she concludes. “Every step—no matter how small—is important.”
As for her own health, Wu is happy to report that she has physically recovered from the experience. “After I stopped eating school lunches I went gluten free and dairy free and it has turned my life around,” she says. “I think my body has finally healed from a year of school lunches.”
You Might Also Appreciate:
Mr. Clean: Educator Tom Keating aims to tidy up school restrooms