For those unfamiliar with this mysterious sounding figure: She’s a teacher in an elementary school in Illinois where most of the students qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch. Dismayed by what she saw getting served up in the cafeteria — and by how it tasted – Mrs Q. decided to eat school lunch every day during 2010 and write, anonymously, about her experience.
Her goal: To raise awareness. A lot of people — including many parents — have no idea what kind of foods kids eat for lunch. She’s up to day #92, and counting, roughly halfway into her experiment.
Quite quickly Fed Up with Lunch: The School Lunch Project gathered an audience. Mrs Q. was interviewed on Good Morning America, featured on the Yahoo home page, and chatted up by school food revolution man Jamie Oliver.
Her site now frequently features guest bloggers including nutritionists, parents, and school lunch reform advocates such as Janet Poppendieck. It has also spawned a Flickr group, and a monthly Titanium Spork Award honoring a school lunch activist.
I caught up with Mrs. Q, who is also the mom of a toddler, via phone before the school year ends to see how she’s holding up and what she’s learned from the project.
What motivated you to start documenting lunch at your school?
I wanted to bring attention to the need for school food reform and add my voice to the chorus of people advocating on behalf of little people who can’t advocate for themselves. What gets served to many children around this country for lunch is just plain wrong.
Why are you anonymous?
I want to protect my job. I’m paranoid I might get fired for doing what I’m doing. I also don’t want the lunch manager or the lunch ladies to feel betrayed by me.
Are there any memorably bad — or good — lunches you’ve eaten to date?
I can’t think of any really great ones, some of them are just okay. There was this cheese lasagna that was just plain awful. The pasta was all crumbly. And the meat is never of good quality. Sometimes it’s the stuff that’s been rejected by fast food restaurants. The meat the USDA deems acceptable for school children is shameful.
Sometimes we get meals that are covered in packaging and so highly processed you think you’re eating nasty space age stuff.
It’s all there on my blog, one bad lunch at a time.
How has eating school food affected you personally?
I’ve had my blood checked and everything is fine and I haven’t put on weight. But sometimes I get headaches in the afternoon, depending on what’s been served for lunch. And sometimes I get really hungry not long after eating lunch. And I rarely feel satisfied after eating a school meal. I’m even more careful about what kind of foods I eat at home. I try to eat as healthily as I can.
What’s your school’s cafeteria like?
It’s like a prison. There’s chaos in the the lunch room. It would drive me nuts to eat in there. There are a lot of adults yelling, trying to restore order. And there are a lot of kids eager to move because at my school there’s no recess.
What would you like to see students eating for school lunch?
Fresh fruit every day. A salad bar in every school. Seasonal foods. I’m not a nutritionist but it just makes sense to me for kids to eat less processed and frozen foods and more fresh foods, whenever and wherever possible.
I live in a part of the country where it’s hard to get fresh produce in the winter. I get that. But there are creative ways to provide nutritious food then too. Maybe a fruit cup or frozen fruit is acceptable then, but you choose the least processed option.
And what about some protein alternatives to beef and chicken? I never see pork on the menu — or tofu for that matter. And there’s very little variety when it comes to starch, which is almost always wheat-based. What about more rice or other grains? The whole “two starch” rule is ridiculous. How many people eat bread and rice in the same meal?
I’m not advocating never having chicken tenders or pizza. I understand these items are popular with kids. But we can make them less processed, made from scratch, and more nutritious for kids. One school lunch pizza had a list of 62 ingredients. That’s just wrong.
What kind of attention did you think your blog would receive?
I didn’t think it would get noticed at all. It’s evolved in a way I wouldn’t have expected. But ten days after I started I began receiving lots of comments and they haven’t stopped.
Once I started tracking my traffic in February I found I was getting around 1,000 hits a day. That figure has continued to climb over the last few months. Now I typically get 7,000-10,000 visitors a day. On the day an interview with me appeared on the Yahoo home page I got over 100,000 hits. I’m still amazed by all the interest.
It’s been surreal. But it’s so clear to me that so many people really do want to see school lunch change across the country.
How are you planning on spending your summer?
Volunteering as a lunch lady in a school food program. That will give me a different perspective. I want to see the food inside the cafeteria before it gets served up to the kids. What are the food preparation duties? What are the limitations of the kitchen? What are the challenges with the food? I want to understand things from the other side.
What’s next for Fed Up With Lunch?
I said I’d do this project for an entire calendar year, so I’ll continue to file my school food posts when school starts again in the fall.
What advice do you have for parents who want to change school lunch?
Talk with your kids about what kind of food is available for lunch. Go have lunch with your child and see what the food and the eating environment is like.
Find someone on staff who shares your concerns. If your school has a gym teacher that may be a good place to start. Go have a chat with him or her during your school’s open house. They often don’t get a lot of visitors that night. Form a school wellness committee and find other parents who share your concerns and bring them to the attention of the principal. Be a force for change in your child’s school. Parents really can make a difference.
Let me know below what you think of her campaign for change and what questions you might have for this school lunch reformer.
And, um, could you eat your child’s school lunch every day? Just curious.
[Photo: Mrs. Q]
This post also appears on Civil Eats.