Mrs. Q’s Battle Cry for School Lunches
18 Dec, 2011
Sarah Wu was a speech pathologist with the Chicago Public Schools, in her third year of professional life. She loved her job, and felt she was making a difference with the low-income elementary school children with whom she was working. She had a husband and child, was a private person and a self-described even-tempered individual who rarely “got mad” about things. Almost three years later, however, under the pseudonym “Mrs. Q,” she is an Internet sensation because of her outspoken campaign for the improvement of school lunches; and she is now the author of a book, Fed Up With Lunch: How One Anonymous Teacher Revealed the Truth About School Lunches—and How We Can Change Them!, detailing her experiences.
How did Sarah’s transformation take place? It all began one day when she forgot her lunch. She thought it was no big deal; she would pick up a lunch from the school cafeteria. She spent three dollars for the only lunch available: a bagel dog, a Jell-O cup, six Tater Tots, and chocolate milk.
That day, she broke her pattern and got mad. “That first meal really bothered me,” Sarah told Organic Connections. “I think it was because I care so much about my students; they don’t have access to the things that, I feel, a lot of people take for granted in their lives. People often read about a problem and there’s a distance—like maybe they read about something online and get upset about it and then move on with their day. I did sort of move on with my life after I ate that first lunch, but the problem was that I was faced with the children who eat those meals every day. I couldn’t just shake it off and move along; it was right there in front of my face. So it was either act or not act. And I felt like I wanted to do something.”
These were not ordinary students, either—which exacerbated the problem in Sarah’s mind. “They’re super low-income kids,” Sarah said. “It’s the children that people don’t think about or for sure are never represented in the media. The stories you hear, the things that happen in their lives—they blow your mind, that it’s happening and nobody cares and things just keep moving along.”
Fed Up With Lunch
The action Sarah decided to take was to eat the lunch served at her school every day for a year, photograph the meal and post it on a daily blog, which she titled Fed Up With Lunch: The School Lunch Project. Not wanting to get herself in trouble with the school system, she came up with the pseudonym Mrs. Q simply because, she says in her book, it rhymed with her name.
The blog became an almost instant sensation. Readers from all over the country began lauding her, and she even started hearing from leaders in the fight for school lunch reform, such as Dr. Marion Nestle.
As Sarah went forward she began analyzing the food, as well as photographing and eating it. She would break down the chicken nuggets and pizza for actual ingredients. She also examined the USDA food requirements—which her school did meet or exceed—and showed what “foods” were being served to meet these requirements.
Sarah chatted with the students about these lunches too, the results of which were featured in the “Kids Say the Darndest Things” section of her blog. Several stories of these talks are included in the book. Probably the most frightening revelations in these conversations—aside from the food itself—was what the kids actually did once the food had been served. They would trade items (as children will do), and one kid would end up with five cookies. Or there’s the child who ate six peanut butter and jelly sandwiches one day because others didn’t want them; as Sarah figured out, the child actually ingested 1,908 calories, with 972 of those calories coming from fat.
As the blog grew in popularity, Sarah was interviewed by the media—still under her anonymous pen name—and her publicity widened even more. Probably the high point of this period was the interview she did with Good Morning America—in shadow and with her voice electronically altered. Shortly afterward she received a phone call from none other than celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, at the time engaged in his own campaign for school lunches; they shared mutual stories of what they had each encountered in their respective situations.
By the time she reached the end of the school year, the blog had achieved over a million hits, and Mrs. Q was famous. She was finally approached about turning her experiences into a book—which, she discovered, would mean that she would have to disclose her actual identity. “I didn’t really care to reveal my name,” Sarah recalled. “But when I was approached about writing a book, they told me it would have to be with my real name because a book by an anonymous author wouldn’t sell. I ended up deciding that I would come out, so that’s what I did.”
In addition to detailing her experiences, along with the extensive research she conducted on school food, the book Fed Up With Lunch also includes all of the photos she took of the meals, and it ends with a hefty “action and resource guide” that gives parents plentiful help to become involved in getting this scene changed.
It is this active involvement by parents that Sarah would like to see. “After I started doing my blog, people were totally horrified by what the kids were eating,” Sarah related. “They were shocked. What ended up happening as a result—which I predicted—was that most people decided to opt out of school lunch, deciding that packing lunches for their kids was better. The problem with that is that packing is really tedious. It’s a pain, it’s stressful, and it’s taking time out of your already short schedule in the morning. For me it is definitely an incentive to do some advocacy.”
The response from Chicago Public Schools to Sarah’s book—in which the actual school system for which she worked was revealed—began with a boilerplate response, but then took a turn for the better. “When the book came out, they issued a statement that they ‘meet or exceed the USDA regulations’ on school food,” Sarah said. “However, I recently got an e-mail from the head of nutrition services, and I’m going to be meeting with her next week for the first time.”
Into the Future
With her book released, Sarah is busy promoting it, while working through her blog and other channels to lend her now famous name to continue connecting up parents and getting the message out. “I really want to become more involved with the nonprofits that are working to address these issues,” Sarah explained. “I attended an event earlier in November called Cooking Up Change here in Chicago. They had a competition between high school students to create a school lunch meal for the same exact cost that the school system gets. That was really exciting. I have also recently blogged about the Feeding America initiative to battle hunger, and a lot of the research that they’ve shared about the prevalence of child hunger in our country. I’d very much like to bring forth the work of those two nonprofits and share it with a wider audience.”
The changes that Sarah has experienced within herself through this whole adventure have been significant—and have left her poised for future battles. “I am certainly a lot more vocal than before I started,” Sarah concluded. “My mom told me, ‘What you did was great, because you stood up for the children when nobody else over there would.’ I consider myself, more than anything else, a child advocate, because children have no way of stating an opinion about things that happen in their lives. They are just at the mercy of everybody who is abusing them. I think that it’s important for people to do the right thing; it’s very important for people to speak up when they think that something’s wrong, and not just let it go by. That’s simply our obligation as adults, who have to look out for children who really need people to be there for them.”
Sarah Wu’s book Fed Up With Lunch: How One Anonymous Teacher Revealed the Truth About School Lunches—and How We Can Change Them! is available from the Organic Connections bookstore.
Read Mrs. Q’s continuing blog at www.fedupwithlunch.com.