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Do you know what your kids are eating at school? It could be causing their behavior problems, inattention, and chronic illness. A Chicago public school teacher has been on a mission for the past two years to expose a major problem in America: the horrible state of school hot lunch served to millions of American kids each day. Last year, I started obsessively reading her blog Fed Up With Lunch. At first, it was a quick afternoon distraction that I discovered when I was trying to switch gears between tasks. Soon, I became a regular reader. Mrs. Q’s daily photographs of her school lunch had me hooked. It was the classic bystander’s dilemma: it was so horrible, that I just had to look. You can check out her flickr photostream here.
Pictured above are some of her classic lunches. Because of her photo exposé, Mrs. Q. became a hero on the inside to school lunch reform advocates like myself. Soon, she began getting thousands of hits per day on her blog, and invitations from national news media to speak about her project. But her anonymity was important. She is a real teacher who is dedicated to her profession, not a muckraker.
“I’m blogging anonymously because I like my job and getting a paycheck. But I’m still putting my livelihood on the line by speaking up. Why? Because I want to raise awareness about school lunch. It may not be what every child in this country eats, but I believe the meal that I am showing represents what most children eat at lunch in the US.”
This month, Mrs. Q came forward to reveal her identity in her new book Fed Up With Lunch: How One Anonymus Teacher Revealed The Truth About School Lunches – And How We Can Change Them! Meet Mrs. Q is the pseudonym of Sarah Wu. She is a speech pathologist working for Chicago Public Schools. After forgetting her own lunch at home one day in October 2009, Sarah decided to eat lunch in her school’s cafeteria. This lunch included a bagel dog (a hot dog on a tiny, mushy bagel), a Jell-O cup, six tater tots, and chocolate milk. It was so astonishing to Sarah that children were being fed such low nutrient food, that she decided to eat school lunch everyday for the next year to document exactly what foods were being served, and the impact that the lunch had on her health and afternoon mental performance in school.
“On January 4, 2010, my mission began. I was ready to put my stomach on the line to make a point about school lunch. Like putting on an invisible cloak, I assumed my role as Mrs. Q and marched down to the cafeteria, nervously clutching the three dollar bills I would use to pay for my food. Having correct change is required when buying school lunch: Lunch ladies are not in the business of making change for the usual twenty-dollar bill I keep in my wallet. Feeling like a character in one of John Le Carré’s spy novels, I greeted the lunchroom manager, Pearl, with a confident smile as I stood in the foyer with lines of students streaming past . . . I hustled back to my room, set the tray on my desk, and carefully arranged the items for maximum visibility for a cell-phone camera shot: pasta with meat sauce in a little heated box covered in plastic, green beans in a smaller disposable container, a breadstick, chocolate milk, and a blue raspberry “icee” thing that resembled a popsicle without the stick. Was that supposed to be a serving of a fruit?” (page 18)
Sarah’s book is insightful, endearing, and inspiring. During her project, Sarah never revealed that in the years prior to entering the teaching profession, she worked for Kraft Foods. Knowing how the food industry works from the inside must have angered her even more as the excuses for not feeding children healthy food at school piled up. Sarah ever accepted excuses like, “we feed kids what they like,” or, “who cares if corporations supply school lunch?”. Sarah continued to care, even starting a Wellness Committee at her school.
My favorite parts of Sarah’s book are the the stories that show just how earnest her crusade is. For example, Sarah recalls getting a personal phone call from Food Revolution founder and British culinary celebrity Jamie Oliver while picking her son up from day care. The call was sent to voicemail, and Sarah feverishly calls him back, all the while wondering why someone like Jamie would want to talk to her.
We cannot let Sarah’s mission stop after we close her book. Besides being a quick and entertaining read, Fed Up With Lunch offers a robust resources section for people who want to take action. There is still so much for us to do. For example, few weeks ago the US Senate blocked a proposal by the Obama administration that would cap servings of potatoes to 1 cup per child per week. According to the New York Times, the Senate blocked the proposal by adding an amendment to the 2012 spending bill for the Agriculture Department, which prohibits setting “any maximum limits on the serving of vegetables in school meal programs.”
DailyBurn Life is not a political blog, but we do support the healthy lifestyles of families. This includes the health of not just our DailyBurn members, but also the health of their children too. Parents, schools, and communities impart values around food, exercise, and healthy living to the next generation of citizens. The best thing that we can take away from Fed Up With Lunch is this: if you see something, do something. If you see ways for your community to get healthier, try actually doing something about it! Once you use tools like DailyBurn to change your own life, the next step is to teach others what you have learned. I think that as a teacher herself, Sarah Wu would like that.
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