I love the way Sarah Wu basically stumbled in to this project. While working as a school speech therapist, she forgot her lunch one day and decided to just eat whatever they were serving in the cafeteria. Shocked by the poor quality of food she was served she decided to eat school lunch for one full year and to blog anonymously, as “Mrs. Q,” about the experience. Each day she photographed her meal and wrote about it at fedupwithlunch.com. She came out from behind her anonymity this past Fall at the same time as her book “Fed Up With Lunch: How One Anonymous Teacher Revealed the Truth About School Lunches–And How We Can Change Them!” was published. During the year Mrs. Q was an anonymous blogger, I read several of her posts and, although I was already skeptical about school lunch, I was surprised to see how really bad the lunches she ate were.
I can relate to Mrs. Q’s experiences. I was a public school teacher for several years and would occasionally forget my lunch and buy a lunch from the same cafeteria my students ate from. Like Mrs.Q, I was usually disappointed to find that the quality of the lunches my students were eating was quite poor. Fast forward in my life to a time of a different career and motherhood, my disappointment now came in response to the poor quality of food my daughter was served at daycare. Most of it was processed and devoid of nutrients. A nutritionist friend of mine commented that the food was the way it was at our daycare because the center saved money by purchasing prepared foods from an industrial food distributer. I decided that I didn’t want my child to eat food that was selected only because it was cheap and started sending in food from home. I felt justified in giving my child healthier food, and yet there were many days when I felt self conscious and almost apologetic for doing so.
In the book “Fed Up With Lunch,” Sarah Wu outlines a number problems with school lunch in the United States. During the year she worked on this project, she discovered it was difficult to obtain a list of the ingredients for some of the food served in the cafeteria and it was only after some digging that she discovered the ugly truth. She uses chicken nuggets as an example, since so many American parents think of this food as a wholesome, protein high food that they can rely on their children eating, and yet the amount of actual chicken in most chicken nuggets is minimal. When children in her school were offered a cookie from the cafeteria, parents, teachers and children were probably unaware that they were consuming artificial food dyes that studies have shown are connected to hyperactivity. Parents and schools may think this is food that kids like, and yet Wu observed few children eating most of the food served in her school’s cafeteria, probably because it doesn’t taste good.
Wu points out that the short amount of time students are given to eat in many schools, along with unhealthy and unappealing food options, are obstacles to learning. In her school students are not given a recess and so lunch is their only time to socialize, leaving even less time to eat. She makes an argument for recess in schools, but also for lengthening lunchtime. I can relate, from my own teaching experiences, to the frustration she felt trying to teach children with poor nutrition as well as those who have not had the opportunity to exert their energy during the school day. Many school districts focus heavily on achieving higher test scores to the extent of eliminating recess. Many districts have also signed on with large food corporations that provide them with inexpensive but poor quality foods that contribute to problems with learning.
Wu argues that meals provided by schools should provide an opportunity to educate students about healthy eating and also to connect them to real food sources and to the environment. Lunch ladies should be seen as cooks, responsible for creating good, healthy food, instead of just as servers. Why aren’t they included with the rest of the staff of the school who are viewed as central to children’s learning? She also emphasizes the amount of waste caused by the excessive use of packaging in school lunches, with each item and utensil wrapped in plastic. This teaches children that waste, from both packaging and huge amounts of food that gets thrown away (either because there wasn’t enough time, or because it just wasn’t good enough to consume), is something they don’t need to be concerned with.
In the back of the book is “Mrs. Q’s Guide to Quiet Revolution”, which is a resource for people interested in advocating for improved food in schools, including specific suggestions for teachers, parents, students, chefs and nutritionists who may want to become involved. She encourages grass-roots involvement in creating change by suggesting practical ways individuals can get involved without having to completely transform themselves. She acknowledges a number of individuals and organizations in the country who are working hard toward making change. After reading this book I have a stronger sense of entitlement to my own children’s right to good nutrition and to having a thoughtful relationship with food. It has also encouraged me to join the movement of people working to make this an entitlement for every child. Given new measures taken by the federal government with Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative, Wu’s book comes at a great time for all of us to take a look at what we expect from the future of our relationship with food.