School Lunch Reform Tips From ‘Mrs. Q’

I first interviewed “Mrs. Q” using cloak and dagger methods because she thought she was doing just that. 

In silhouette, voice altered, we only showed her hands and her sensible shoes. She’s soft spoken and has a gentle decency to her demeanor.  She looks like the school speech teacher that she is. But in the past year, she has also become one of the loudest voices in the school lunch program.

Her influential blog, “Fed up with Lunch,” has now turned into a book.  And after a year of living dangerously, Mrs. Q is outing herself.  Mrs. Q is really Sarah Wu. ( Learn more about Wu’s visit to “Good Morning America” Wednesday here.)

She consumed roughly 130 chicken nuggets and, she says, found that most nuggets are half filler. She ate 26 meat patties that often dressed up as “Salisbury steak” or “rib-i-que” on the menus moms read but, she says, they are really just hamburger.

There were 30 pizza slices, which, Wu says, contain 60-plus ingredients. The three peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were so processed, she says, she literally got sick to her stomach.  Three sloppy joes.  Eighty-one fruit cups in syrup. One hundred-twenty tater tots , which are considered a veggie serving. 

Now, to be fair, the Chicago public school officials are doing exactly what schools across the country do ( read the full statement from Chicago Public Schools). They are trying to do better than the USDA gold standard.  Mrs. Q also estimates that she ate 48 carrots and 13 broccoli servings, as well as 18 apples and 20 oranges.  But that’s what an adult would eat when, given those choices.  How much of that do you think the kids actually ate?

About 90 percent of the kids in Wu’s low-income neighborhood school qualify for free or reduced meals. It was with their faces in her mind that she pushed “send” on her first blog.  For many of the 31 million kids across the country who get free lunch, it’s often their best shot at a nutritious meal.  Wu believes passionately that school lunch is an opportunity to turn childhood obesity around and improve performance in the classroom.

Chicago public schools have introduced more fresh fruits and whole wheat; even Wu says it has gotten better.  But, she adds, sometimes a bag of pretzels counts as a whole wheat serving.  The schools say there is no added salt to foods, but Mrs. Q says some pre-packaged spaghetti meals contain 1,000 milligrams of sodium, half the recommended daily allowance, in one re-heated little serving.

Of course,  school lunch reform is about more than just food.  When so many districts are strapped for cash and resources, they can only afford to give kids 20 minutes for lunch. By the time they line up and clean up, Mrs. Q estimates, kids have nine to 13 minutes to eat. What do you think your kid would eat with nine minutes on the clock and a tray with a fruit popsicle, green beans and chocolate milk?

So what’s a parent to do?  Add nutritional education to your priorities, Wu says. It’s as easy as taking them to the veggie section of the grocery store and buying something fresh together, preparing it together and, hopefully, eating it together. 

Now, you’ll have to excuse me. I have a freezer full of chicken nuggets and popsicles I have to weed through. And I’m putting “take kids shopping” on my endless list of things I want to do.

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