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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.
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.