Jamie Oliver: Blog Exposing School Lunches Is 'Brilliant'

Teacher blogs her year of eating school lunch, when she can stomach it.

March 18, 2010, 10:14 AM

March 25, 2010— -- Chef Jamie Oliver says the anonymous teacher and mom blogging about the poor quality of school lunches is just one of the "angels around America" working to improve children's nutrition and health.

"I think it's brilliant that she's expressing herself," Oliver said of "Mrs. Q," whose blog "Fed Up With School Lunch" has gained national attention. "People are intervening; they are offended."

Oliver's new show "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution" takes on the school cafeteria menu in what's been called the country's unhealthiest town.

"Moms and dads work really hard," he said on "Good Morning America" today. "When our kids go to school, we want it to be good."

When "Mrs. Q" forgot her lunch a few times and was forced to eat what her students eat, she says it was far from good.

"I just remember thinking this is terrible, I can't believe this," she told ABCNews.com. "A lot of the other teachers ignore it."

She vowed to eat school lunches for a year and blog the results in hopes of inspiring change at her school and others around the country.

"Let's feed all kids well," she said. "Who can argue with that?"

Her blog has been catching fire in recent weeks as she chokes down the bad stuff -- lasagna and bitter-tasting mystery veggies -- and surprises herself by enjoying meals like chili and mac and cheese.

Her number of followers has exploded from a few hundred to tens of thousands and while she's quick to point out that she's not a nutritionist, she says she knows bad food when she eats it.

One of the worst lunches she's seen was an overly processed peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

"I could barely eat it," she told "Good Morning America." "I was ill, I was sort of out of commission, I was basically lying on the ground."

When asked how her school's lunches compare with airline food, she said "it depends on the meal. But, I mean, sometimes airplane food can be way better than the school lunch."

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Mrs. Q: Blogging Her Way Through the School Cafeteria

Jamie Oliver hopes that parents and school districts will band together to change what children eat both in school and at home.

"I think now is a time of change," he said. "School food is a part of what needs to happen."

He pointed out that the cafeteria cooks do the best they can with limited resources, and that often when parents pack lunches they don't do much better.

"The stuff I've seen in lunch boxes is hideous," he said.

Though "Mrs. Q" is hardly the first to complain about meals from a school cafeteria, her blog has been catching the eye of student health advocates as well as detractors, one of whom called her a "vegetarian hippie."

"They're attacking my character or they're saying this country's going down the tubes and we should be grateful for what we've got," she said.

But most shower her with praise for volunteering to eat the only options many of her students have. She says that 70 percent of her school's students -- like 31 million children in America -- participate in the free lunch program. For many it represents half their daily calories.

Mrs. Q called some of the menu items "deceptive," one labeled meatloaf that was actually a dull-brown meat patty.

The meatloaf entry on March 3 also noted Mrs. Q's disappointment with mystery greens that could have been spinach, could have been collard greens. She posted a picture and asked her readers to help her identify what she ate.

ABCNews.com has confirmed that the school district where Mrs. Q works has a contract with Chartwells, which is owned by Compass Group. Compass Group is affiliated with several fast-food brand partners, including Wendy's, Chick-fil-A, and Subway.

A spokeswoman for Compass Group said a Chartwells representative had viewed the pictures on Mrs. Q's blog and said the wrapping indicated it came from a subcontractor, not Chartwells' directly. They could not offer any information on the subcontractor without knowing which school district employed Mrs. Q.

Nutritionist: 'We Love What She's Doing'

In an e-mailed statement, Chartwells said it was committed to healthy food for students and that students as well as parents and employees are welcome to provide feedback.

"While we're unable to comment on the food pictured, because it is neither representative of our food nor in fact, is it a Chartwells prepared meal, I can tell you that Chartwells has a strong commitment to provide healthy meals," the statement read. "Since each school district is structured differently according to its needs and logistics, sometimes a district utilizes more than one food service contractor to provide meals."

So far, Mrs. Q said, the blog hasn't caught on at her school, though she's nervous she'll face repercussions if her anonymous cover is blown.

"School districts are running out of money and want to cut people," she said, calling her school "middle of the road" in terms of resources. "I can't predict how my principal would react to this. I really like my school and I don't want a different job."

But she has offered a few tidbits about herself. She's in her 30s and is the mother of a young son. She considers herself "middle class" and admits to having no formal training in nutrition.

She has also begun offering up her project to guest bloggers. One, a teacher in Japan, posted pictures and a description of the sushi, vegetables and fruit his students eat.

Another, listed only as Ms. A, identified herself as an employee of a school food service provider and a one-time New York City chef. Ms. A, who has her own blog, Brave New Lunch, reported that she had studied the contents of school-distributed cheese pizza and found it contained a whopping 62 ingredients: 25 in the crust, 14 in the sauce, four in the cheese and 19 in the cheese substitute.

In a Jan. 17 blog about herself, Mrs. Q said she'd probably be one of the last people school officials would suspect of starting a project like this one.

"In my professional life, I don't make waves," she wrote. "I avoid conflict. I'm a 'yes' man."

Mrs. Q had a checkup before starting the project in January, she told ABCNews.com, and again about a month ago and has not gained any weight from her new diet. She admits she's not always able to eat more than a few bites. And she eats healthy away from school.

"We love what she's doing," Kathryn Strong, a dietician with the Physician's Committee for Responsible Medicine's Healthy School Lunch project, which advocates for healthier food choices in schools. "I think it's great that she's putting pictures up."

Among the worst offenses many school food service providers are committing are repeatedly serving "highly processed, low-quality animal products," and not giving students another option.

Congress, Michelle Obama, Mrs. Q Take on School Lunches

The content of school lunches has gotten all the way to the White House in recent months, with first lady Michelle Obama pushing for healthier options in schools as part of her campaign on childhood obesity.

And a new bill in Congress, Healthy School Meals Act of 2010, would reward districts with additional food aid for offering more vegetarian options in their cafeterias and healthy, non-dairy beverages.

"We found that kids are very open to trying new foods, to eating healthy foods, but you've got to give them the choice," Strong said.

PCRM annually ranks the best and worst school districts in a report card, based on self-reporting by the districts. In 2008, the most recent report available, Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland was on top of the list with an A, offering four low-fat side dishes and salad dressings every day and menu items such as black bean burgers.

East Baton Rouge Parish School System in Louisiana was graded an F, with PCRM noting that fresh fruit was limited and vegetarian items were "rarely or never available."

Mrs. Q said her school offers students -- and anonymous blogging teachers -- one hot lunch option with one meatless alternative.

She said she's tried to talk with her students about their meals, but they usually just tell her what they think she wants to hear -- how they ate all of their vegetables for example -- instead of giving her their honest opinions.

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