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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Chicago Teacher Gets ‘Fed Up With Lunch’

What’s on your child’s school lunch tray today? Chicago public school teacher Sarah Wu decided to find out.

In 2010, she ate school lunches every day, took pictures of the meals and blogged about it (anonymously). Her first meal was something called a “bagel dog,” or, as Wu describes it: “a hot dog encased in soggy dough.” Tater tots were the side dish and that day’s fruit: “a few cubes of pear suspended in bright red Jell-O.”

During her year of blogging, Wu realized that the food the students were eating was mainly reheated, frozen fare, sort of like TV dinners. Instead of fresh fruit, kids mainly ate fruit cups, slathered in a high-fructose corn syrup. The kids only got a 20-minute lunch break and no recess. So, she calculated that the kids had between 9 and 13 minutes to scarf down lunch.

Wu realized the short lunch period meant the students would usually just drink the chocolate milk and slurp up the juice from the fruit cocktail.

But Wu’s experience also put her in touch with schools and lunch ladies across the country, who are trying to serve up something better: organic food, freshly prepared meals, homemade sauces and salad bars.

The federal government last year passed a law calling for more produce and whole grains, less whole milk and fewer overall calories in school lunches. And while some schools are making progress, it’s an uphill battle.

Wu decided to shed her anonymity to write about her experience in her book, “Fed Up With Food,” where she not only writes about the meals she ate, but also provides a guide for parents, teachers and students on how they can improve school lunches in their communities.


Book Excerpt: Fed Up With Lunch

By Sarah Wu

Chapter 1: Mrs. Q Goes Undercover (Like a Beef Patty Masquerading as Meatloaf)

When I started my blog, it was important for me to remain anonymous. I revealed the lunch I ate every day but kept many details to myself. Being anonymous was fun, scary, and sometimes frustrating when I wanted to say more but was afraid to give too many clues that might blow my cover. At this point, finally revealing myself to you as the real Mrs. Q comes as a big relief for me. It’s been increasingly hard to hide who I really am with people I care about—and I care about my students and coworkers, the lunch ladies at my school, and, of course, the remarkable group of caring people who have followed and contributed to my blog.

So allow me to introduce myself. I am Sarah. Or as I’m known at school: Mrs. Wu. How did I brainstorm my alter ego: Mrs. Q? The name came to me as an alias simply because it rhymes with my last name! See? I was hiding in plain sight all along.


My speech room is on the second floor of the largest elementary school I have ever seen, spanning the length of one city block. Haugan Elementary looms large with three floors of classrooms. The cafeteria is on the first floor and, to accommodate a student body of approximately 1,300 students, lunches are divided into five lunch periods. To get down to the cafeteria from my room, I have to walk approximately sixty feet along the corridor of the second floor and then down a massive stairway that opens out to a foyer in front of the cafeteria. The foyer fills up with students with the ebb and flow of scheduled lunchtimes.

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. Pearl positioned herself in front of the lunch line talking to teachers and students. I told her as I handed over my cash, “I’ll be eating a lot of school lunches this year because it’s quicker than packing my lunch. I . . . ” I was about to say more, but she was called away to attend to something in the kitchen. I was happy I was cut off because when you’re undercover, it’s best to stick as close to the truth as you can. It keeps you from slipping up and my intention was not to lie to anyone. What I said was true—it would be easier to come to school and buy lunch instead of taking the time to prepare and bring my own midday meals. That was the one big advantage of eating school lunch every day, given how much work was involved in getting myself and my toddler into the car in the morning—not to mention waking up my cranky, sleepyhead spouse.

On the day of my first school lunch for the project, pasta with meat sauce was the main dish. Glancing at the long lines of children waiting to pick up their food, I picked up my already-filled tray and hurried out of the cafeteria. Bursting with adrenaline, I glanced back like an inexperienced thief leaving a crime scene.

Each weekday, as I climbed up the massive staircase clutching my tray, I thought one of two things: What have I gotten myself into? and Please don’t hate me forever, Pearl!

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?

Glancing at the door to make sure no one was watching, I pulled out my cell phone and took a couple of pictures. Then, tucking the phone back in my purse, I settled down to eat. My utensil—a spork—came wrapped in plastic that also held a little, bitty nap-kin and a straw. Fascinating. Even though the main course had very little pasta and a lot of meat sauce, it actually became one of my favorite meals. And during the next few weeks, after some meals that were seriously hard to choke down, I came to appreciate that first pasta dish more and more.

Reprinted with permission from Chronicle Books, Copyright 2011 Sarah Wu.

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  • Anonymous

    Do people wonder why our nation’s children are hyper and can’t concentrate.
    That food, if one is to call it that, is disgusting. 20 minutes for lunch as well. I’m sorry but this needs some serious changes here. Bring back recess as well. Good food, some time to enjoy it, and then some down time to digest and play. If it means a longer school day so be it. Unions get on board.

  • caligirl

    thank you for this, ms. wu.  what is called ‘food’ in most schools should actually be spelled ‘phood’ or ‘fud’.  it is disgusting, and an embarrassment.  we–as rational, thinking adults–need to do much better by our nation’s children.  

  • Tonireed

    I would like to know if the author gained weight during the year, or if her cholesterol or blood pressure levels went up?

    • http://www.hereandnow.org Kevin Sullivan

      actually, she said she paid more attention to what she was eating outside of school.. so her cholestoral went down.. and her weight stayed about the same. –Kevin, H&N producer

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=624150378 Sarah Guyer

    Regarding the comment just made about not being able to afford a packed lunch…I would think that if you planned out lunches weekly it would be less costly to do that than purchase school lunch. And if the cost is more once broken down, isn’t an investment in health better in the long run?

    • http://www.hereandnow.org Kevin Sullivan

      I think they were referencing kids on free or reduced school lunch programs, who depend on school lunches, sometimes as their major meal of the day.

  • Okitaris

    We’ve given the power over our food to the department of agriculture,  the nutritionist certification is controlled by the department of agriculture,  the department of agriculture’s mandate is to enrich the farmers.     It has become in league with the wealthy farmer with the revolving door.    So the nutritionist must do what the DOA says.    Put the nutritionists certification under the department of Health where it should be is what must be done. Then put the DOA under the department of health for the farmer and the food!

  • Ronald Johnson

    vegan vegan vegan

    • Anonymous

      Ridiculous, if you want to live a hippie lifestyle more power to you, but leave your foolish notions out of public discourse, ya fruit loop.

      • Cal Mi Mpc

        Veganism is a belief system, practically a religion.

  • sailon_52

    When you think that many children don’t get enough healthy food when they go home (kids in low income families) it’s really important to provide something edible and nutritious. Kids don’t eat much so higher quality shouldn’t cost a lot. Keep it simple. Adding healthy fruits and pureed vegetables to a muffin is better than poor quality, high salt and fat meat.

    • guest

      kids that aren’t used to eating healthy at home won’t eat healthy at school…

  • where’s the beef?

    I understand Here & Now needs some lighter fare to serve up amidst its weighter, substantive, and more filling stories. But this story did NOT deserve 2nd billing on today’s show. The stories about the political candidates and their policy proposals are much more important that what lunch item made this particular woman sick one night. Egad–and now you’re giving her a second segment after the first break! Enough already.
    Please, H&N, reassess your priorities and weight your coverage accordingly.

    • Jessihuh21

      I don’t see this as light fare. As a parent who listens to here and now every afternoon as.I wait to pick up my kids from school, I find this to be highly substantive and important. Equally important to political candidates…

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=14313816 Tim Noble

      The subject of what kids eat everyday for lunch is not “lighter fare”. Nutrition plays a major role in determining a student’s ability to learn (and behave) and grow up to be a productive member of society. For many low-income students, school lunch may be the only chance at getting a healthy meal all day. To leave children a mere 10 minutes each day to consume what is supposed to be a full, balanced meal is tragic. The fact that school lunch is such a low priority that bagel dogs and tater tots are mainstays of a school’s nutritional offerings is a disgrace.

  • Jessica

    Listening to this story I feel so lucky to live in Vermont.  The food served at my Son’s elementary school is not only healthier than the options described by Mrs. Wu (with fresh fruit and vegetables being served for the morning snack as well as at the salad and sandwich bar and in the hot lunch options) but many of the foods served come from local farms.  I wish all schools would look to their local farms and healthy food providers to source the cafeteria.

  • Yar

    I was told by a school dietitian that a 2 dollar lunch they feed the children has only 63 cents in food costs.   The most dangerous weapon in America is the box cutter in our school lunch rooms.  
    It is pretty hard to improve lunch with that kind of cost limit.

  • vickie brooks

    PUBLIC SCHOOL  We are so lucky in our commubnity we went from can to pan to farm to plate.  Our elementary school in Woodstock Vermont now has a food coordinator who sources local food, works with the kids to plant much of the food in a school garden and then they help with preperation.  This is a public school not private.  And there is a second staff person who cooks the food daily, coordinates the compost (and can tell what is being eaten and what is not) – it is fantastic and I bet it costs less than the previous model with several staff and purchasing all of the food from cans and pre packaged.  We also get the meat for local farms.

    vickie brooks

    • Susan

      Vickie, wow! The program at your school sounds fantastic. Could u possibly provide any resources and or contacts for implementing such a program at other schools. Any guidance or direction would be much appreciated. Thank you,

  • Squ1rrel75

    I delivered produce to public schools for a number of years and on those days I was always given the opprtunity to have a lunch on the school’s tab. At first I thought it was a great deal until I realized the low quality of the entrees availabe to students. Hamburgers were probably barely made of meat, chicken patties likewise seem very un-chicken like. The pizza was usually best thing on the menu because it was made fresh daily not produced in a factory production kitchen by foodservice companies and shipped frozen. it is no laughing matter, school lunch programs condition people to appreciate fast foods while most of the salad I bring goes in the compost bin.

  • Jessihuh21

    I’ve read Mrs. Wu’s blog for a least a year now and I love it. She, along with others in the food.movement, have inspired me to try and change my schools horrible food. Thank you for bringing this to the national stage.

  • Leslie

    I think this was a perfect show for second billing.  The only time I had a decent lunch at public school was if I brought it from home or during the brief period pour poor inner city school had a salad bar.  I ate a salad everyday and was thoroughly disappointed when it moved on to another school.  Our district was so poor, the schools shared a salad bar.
    Not light fare at all, this is a serious issue, especially for our vulnerable children.

  • Janet Makaris

    I have to thank the heavens for our little elementary school in Huntington, Vermont – Brewster Pierce Memorial – and Allison Forrest, the school lunch cook for 25 years.  When my daughter was a student there, on a daily basis she enjoyed fresh baked whole wheat bread, locally grown vegetables and the  nutritional education that Alison single handedly shared as part of her daily routine and personal mission.  Allison had each child try at least one new thing everyday; she lectured the classes about the different grains and beans that exist, and prepared different dishes and unusual vegetables for the kids to try, to expose them to choices other than iceberg lettuce and cucumbers. Allison even appeared before the legislature in Washington to encourage the government to supply whole wheat flour to schools instead of white, in a cost-effective manner. Our neighborhood school has been a model for healthy lunches – all the kids miss it when they move on to higher grades. On a larger scale, it was a unique situation, but how fabulous that it was just a normal way of life for those lucky small-town kids!

  • Rob Paige

    First, I’m not going to gripe about Susan Wu having issues with school lunches. I remember some “lunches” that seemed more a punishment than anything else. That said, I am rather tired of seeing “This ingredient contains more than 6 syllables in its name, none of which I can pronounce because I skipped out on science classes,  so surely it’ll give my babies cancer, flesh eating bacteria, and make them fond of Polish death metal “. It’s not just on Here and Now where I’ve heard this, so please don’t think I’m singling your show out, but the issues of chemicals in our food is a lot more complex than “Difficult to prounounce”=BAD. I’d love to see you guys invite, say, a food chemist and a biologist on, and ask them about these ingerdients.

    • MaggieMay

      First learn how to spell. You obviously enjoy chemicals in your food

  • SchoolMom

    I personally hope that there are more stories like this one on H&N. It’s a very serious issue and one that resonates with so many homes in this country. My 16 year-old son has repeatedly said, (and I quote), “it’s artificial food by-product, Mom. I’m not eating that!”  True to his word, he has consistently refrained from eating school lunches for the last year and a half. Although I don’t agree with his skipping lunch, after seeing this, I can’t say that I blame him.

  • Terry McCormick

    Hello, Robin! I graduated in 1985 and then we has 40 minutes for lunch! People don’t realize you “digest” your 1st 1/2 day’s learning as you eat your lunch! We went from 8:30 to 4:30 and had clubs and sports thereafter. Sometimes, it was hard to be home for dinner @ 6PM! Academics and sporting clubs have gone the way of the Edsel! Yet, we can draw from Plato’s wisdom when he proclaimed : “Physical fitness and mental fitness go hand in hand!”  I believe this blend of study and clubs/recreation made our classes more interesting and we would help each other like they were family!    Thank you, Robin! Sincere best wishes, Terry.

  • Clara

    This is your typical Standard American Diet(SAD) of overprocessed, fragmented, chemicalized, GMO ladened, dead and stale material generally packed in a colorful box or plastic container.
    No wonder they are overweight, lack energy and condemned to illnesses for Big Pharma to take care of.
    Americans are overfed and undernourished. Their diets lack the nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, enzymes, fiber, auxons, etc. People are starved for nutrients stripped away in the processing of the original source.
    Too much refined sugar and refined flour in the diets along with too much sodium and fake fats.

    Eat more RAW foods as Nature intended. As the old saying goes: eat foods that spoil, but eat them before they do.
    Its all about getting enough ENZYMES into the body. Without them, little gets metabolized.

    One-quarter of what you eat keeps you alive.  The other three-quarters keeps your doctor alive.  (Hieroglyph found in an ancient Egyptian tomb.)
    Sarah Wu at this point may be ready for a good fast or at least a detox diet of fresh fruits and vegetables juices. Good luck to you.


    Chicago Teacher Gets ‘Fed Up With Lunch’
    I listened with interest as Sarah Wu presented her opinion of school lunches and the description of the ingredients in them.  I would have been more convinced of the validity of her opinions if she had included the same details of the same menu when prepared and served at home.  And also explained why and how some of the ingredients happen to be in each of the meals.

  • http://simpleromantic.blogspot.com LRShimer

    My school district has a large contingent of non-working spouses (mostly mothers). This is, of course, unusual these days. We have no budgeted school lunch program but we have groups of these volunteer parents who work out deal with a variety of local food vendors, collect pre-payment rom kids/parents, then voluntarily staff the acceptance and distribution of the food from the food vendors.  It means a)The food is based on the kids and their parents voting for vendors – which may be heavily based on what the kids think is tasty b) When the food is decent (the deli sandwiches on Wednesday, for example, are relatively well balanced offerings) it’s because we live in an area with unpaid staff. It means that the city just north of us, where both parents typically work, doesn’t have this luxury.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Edward-Boughton/1379995701 Edward Boughton

    I’m 44 and this was a problem when I was a child. No it
    sound like it is 60% synthetic.  Back
    then it was disclosed that the typical School Lunch was 40% Fat. Blamed on Farm
    Subsidies. I, like most children have a very high metabolism and even if I
    would eat the food shown along with your interview I would feel hungry all
    day.  This looks like bad ’60s
    Appetizers.  Today, I eat a healthy
    vegetarian diet and my daily food costs me between $1 to $2 a day… eating,
    (Rice, Pasta, Beans, Nuts, and fresh Vegetables and Fruit)  There is no excuses for schools to be able to
    serve better than they do for less than $0.25 per meal with their national
    buying power.  There is a great book
    called “Feed Your Kids Bright” somebody should read this.  And I “do” believe changing Student Behavior is
    as easy as presentation, but to be fair the Cafeteria can simply stack the deck
    by offering only good food.  Most junk
    food can be made healthy, but junk food manufactures are not in that business.  I also wonder if the high junk food consumption,
    and high sugar drinks is not to simply compensate for the tiny portions and
    limited time given in School.

  • Kerry Rose

    As a school “lunch lady” at Woodstock School in Portland, OR- Portland Public School District 1, I feel that Ms. Wu should broaden her research before putting all school districts in the same basket.  I listen to your show and NPR on OPB everyday while preparing meals for the students at my school.  I had just finished up prepping 100 servings of beef lasagna and 15 vegetarian servings made with locally sourced products.  PPS has stretched its budget and imagination to provide as many local products as possible in the creation of inexpensive and very edible meals including whole breast chicken nuggets and filets which the kids love.  We do serve hot dogs and hamburgers, but all buns, rolls and bread are whole wheat from a local bakery.  Potatoes offered are either baked or roasted.  Never deep fried.  We offer a full, all you can eat salad, fruit and veggie bar at each lunch.  Fruit is also offered and encouraged with breakfast.  There are too many examples of healthy choices to list.

    I’m proud of what we do.  Go to your school district if you have concerns.  There are options and flexibility to make changes. Start small and think big.  From top to bottom the nutrition service department of your district cares about your kids.  Work with them, not against them.

    Kerry Rose

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for telling this story about the lunch program. More emphasis needs to be on what we are feeding school children, and not a convenience of preparation.

    1 in 3 children born after 2000 will have Type 2 Diabetes, what link is there between this and school lunch? http://michaelmaczesty.blogspot.com/2011/07/because-toys-and-games-dont-cause-type.html

  • Nick Reid

    A year and a half ago, I taught English at a French high school for eight months, and other than the immense joy I experienced interacting with my students, I also had the pleasure of eating at the school cafeteria. For a mere €2.20 I received a vegetable dish (salad, potato salad, etc.), a piece of fruit, a dairy product (cheese or yogurt, usually), bread and whatever the hot selection of the day was. The hot selection of the day was the main course — usually, it was some sort of meat and cooked vegetables with rice or pasta. They often had a fish option, as well. I often returned to the smiling chefs for complimentary seconds of the side dishes. To drink there was one option: water. This is key. There was no pop/soda/sugary stuff. The food was delicious!!! Students had at least an hour for lunch. In class, my students were generally quite sprightly. They were often too shy to try out their English, but I never noticed kids dozing off and for the most part they were attentive. Also, I did notice that there were not too many cases of obesity among my students. I don’t know if my students knew just how good they had it, but I do know that compared to my high school cafeteria experience, the cafeteria at Lycée Jean-Marc Boivin in Dijon was, how do I say? Magnifique!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1026936968 Michelle Huffaker

    I can’t wait to read this book. I also highly recommend “School Lunch Politics: The Surprising History of America’s Favorite Welfare Program” by Susan Levine.

  • Themuffinlady


    A school is NOT THE HOME, the responsibility of a school is to teach academic, PE and introduce the wonders of Art and Music (much of which has been forfeited to an exam C_SAP)

    I am an original member of CMTS, and have left this group for I do not approve of what they are are doing in schools–causing food obsessions and there has been since inception a huge rise in Eating Disorders in children 12 and under as the wrong message is being incorporated by these young kids.
    Now please consider A. we were all raised on the same crap in school and turned out just fine. At least today children/students have options such as yogurts or salad, when we were growing up such options were not as readily available at school.
                                               B. Some of the funds that should have gone to improving school foods in lower income areas have gone to Private Schools (most in the NE) for they got their grant request in rapidly!
                                              C. Too many public school that have altered their menus toward that of more healthful school foods have consequentially laid off a teacher or 2 and sometimes a para-professional too. Thus is it possible that these teachers were let go so that the school district could afford healthier food options in the cafeteria.
                                              D.  IF you as a parent or student do not klike the school’s food you DO HAVE THE OPTION OF preparing a homemade lunch/breakfast for your child to take to school or eat before going to school. And sorry but the breakfast toaster bar is not a nutritious breakfast, and those prepared Lunch packages cost you more than if you had prepared the same out of fresh ingredients.


  • Themuffinlady

    I shall say it again

    and as a former teacher, therapist and culinarian  member of Chef Move To Schools



    You don;t like the school food then prepare your own and have your child take it with them as thousands ahve done for decades.

    Sorry your school is not yours or your child’s personal restaurant—get over it!

    • purple32

      I think most people know that if they don’t like the school lunch that they could make their own.  I also think part of it is that if we are going to spend money to provide school lunches, we should provide something that is as healthy and nutritious as possible.

      Some times as this article states, it’s the only  meal that the child eats.

      How about this school where students aren’t allowed to bring lunch:

      I don’t see anyone criticizing you in particular but rather commenting on the story and hoping we as a country can improve what we’ve got.

    • Itchnglsh

      Having worked in a school district where school breakfast and lunch are the only meals 80 % of kids eat during the day, your comment is quite brazen.  Essentially you are saying, if families can’t afford to make lunches for their kids to bring to school, then the students and families should accept the poor quality, unhealthy school lunch – a beggars can’t be choosers attitude. 

      Schools are learning institutions, and yes, the schools DO belong to the community.  Schools, and their food programs, have a responsibility to teach nutrition and healthy habits.  I suggest you look up “academics” and what State Learning Standards require districts to do create students for life after high school.   Providing poor quality foods is creating bigger issues for the future – we are a country that can’t handle its health care problems.

  • What are our kids eating?

    I was caught short one day while working in school.  For $3.00 I bought a HALF of a cheese sandwich (cold) and about 4 oz. of microwaved chicken noodle soup.  I didn’t want the milk and asked them to serve it to some student who would like it, but was told they couldn’t do that.  The cheese was good. 
    The middle school kids didn’t get much more.  They were always hungry eating candy. 

  • Mary

    I had the great pleasure to eat lunch at the Center School in East Hampton, CT recently.  The  lunch was a wonderful homemade pizza with white sauce, garlic and tomatoes.  Other flavors were available.  Lunch included a salad with raw broccoli, and milk.   Wednesday they had had a savory macaroni and cheese with pumpkin.  The lunch room staff was gracious and the students were enthusiastic consumers.

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