Oct. 5, 2011 -- One teacher went undercover to determine the quality of the school lunches in her district. But what started as an anonymous blog, "Fed Up With Lunch: The School Lunch Project," rapidly gained enormous attention and put a spotlight on what children were being served in their cafeterias. Having used the moniker "Mrs. Q" for the past year, the teacher revealed her secret identity for the first time on "Good Morning America" Wednesday. Her popular blog is now a book. Read an excerpt below.
Mrs. Q Goes Undercover (Like a Beef Patty Masquerading as Meatloaf)
"The value of identity of course is that so often with it comes purpose." -- Richard Grant
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.
After a few days of eating school lunches, I confessed to my husband, Mike, what I had been up to. Mike summed up his view on my project: "As soon as it stops being fun, don't do it anymore." I thought that was a funny thing to say, because it really wasn't very fun, even from the start. It was nerve-racking, exhausting, and a huge gamble. Mike didn't view the blog like that at all. At first he just wanted to make sure it didn't reveal our true identities (check! I was anonymous). And then, his only remaining concern was how I would fit the blog into our schedule. I told him, "It only takes a few minutes to cell phone blog, sweetie. It's not a huge deal."
When the project began, it was quick and easy. Blogging in secret was no big deal: Other teachers knew I was busy, so eating in my room didn't raise any eyebrows. Stealthily carrying lunch up to my classroom, taking a quick picture, and blogging about my school lunch into the night was thrilling and exhausting. I became a master actress: It had to look like I was really excited about buying the food because why else would I be eating school lunch every day? Compartmentalizing was critical for maintaining my anonymity; I didn't think about my blog at work and when I was at home work-ing on the blog, I didn't think about my job as an educator.
Two weeks into January, I came home from work and noticed that I had twenty comments on a blog post. I put my hands over my mouth and yelled out for my husband, "Come and look at this!" A young, savvy nutritionist-in-training named Andy Bellatti had tweeted about my blog, and this tweet had come to the attention of Marion Nestle, a leading nutritionist in New York, who wrote a related blog post on her site. She shared my blog's URL with all of her readers. I had no idea how many people came to visit Fed Up With Lunch: The School Lunch Project that day, as I had not installed any program to track daily hits. This thing was already getting big-ger than I'd expected.
On the last day of January I installed a hit tracker and realized that after just one month, I was getting about one thousand hits per day. I was truly shocked, excited, and terrified. I confided in my husband, "I'm feeling so bad about doing this, like I'm betraying all the lunch ladies at school." I had great timing: Mike and I were trying to get our son ready for bed and Charlie was squirming out of his pajamas. I should have waited to share that with my husband, but I let myself worry out loud. "I care about everyone I work with. What if they hate me after all this comes out? Worse, what if I lose my job?"
Mike knew how to calm me down. After assuring me that the blog would not get me fired, he reminded me, "If it's not fun, just stop." I tried to continue along with his line of reasoning. It was only a blog, right? I could take it on and make it work and find time by organizing myself better. I could reach out to readers if I had questions about blogging or school lunch regulations.
This blogging thing is no big deal, I tried to tell myself, This is going to blow over.
I know that at some point in your life you ate hot lunch at school. It might have been pretty good, like a grilled cheese sandwich and commercial tomato soup that kept you warm on a cold winter day (that is still one of my favorite combos at home). Or it might have been bad—like unrecognizable turkey bits swimming in salty gravy over soggy toast. In either case, I have news for you: School lunch has gotten worse. Much worse.
Every day, I watched small kids in the cinderblock hallway outside of the lunchroom holding laminated lunch tickets with their names written in dark permanent marker. Usually the little kids were jumpy and hungry, fumbling with large plastic lunch trays. I thought it was cute when the little kids caught sight of the bigger kids in the line opposite theirs. It was like they couldn't believe their luck: They would be eating at school just like the big kids.
In the cafeteria, I heard the lunch ladies say, "Keep moving, and take one of each." Small children tried to balance their trays while scanning the lunch line. Frequent menu items at my school included chicken nuggets, hot dogs, pizza, pasta, and hamburgers. Fast food. In fact, chances were good that those of my students whose parents worked for Taco Bell, McDonald's, Starbucks, and Subway would get similar food when their parents brought home leftovers from their jobs.
I wondered what kids who went through the line for the first time thought about the food being encased in paper and plastic. Because of their exposure to fast food, I imagined that they weren't as put off by the enormous amount of packaging as many of the readers of my blog have been. Certainly, after a week, they were fully indoctrinated and not fazed at all.
The kids pushed forward in the lunch line as cartons were stacked neatly on their trays. A lunchroom aide led them to the picnic-style table where the class sat down. The smaller kids couldn't start eating yet because they weren't able to open any of the lunch containers, including the little bag with the spork. They waited and fidgeted until it was finally their turn for help. Wham, wham, wham. A lunch aide moved down the rows, stabbing a spork through the plastic covering of each parcel of chicken nuggets just like she was going down an assembly line.
The school where I work only allows twenty minutes for lunch -- including lining up time. I know it had to be shocking for the students who just started school to learn that there was no time to eat. They sat down with their food and suddenly it was time to clean up. There was no time to try the veggies, which were often Tater Tots, or even to open the fruit cups. The kids got up slowly as a lunchroom worker dumped their trays into the trash. Due to food-safety regulations, food could not be saved for later.
The way the big kids moved through the line was almost entirely different. Many were quiet, but others formed small circles around friends, eagerly anticipating the one break in the day when they could socialize. (There is no recess at my school. Another story altogether -- I'll have more to say about this in a later chapter.)
Sometimes the older kids' faces were expressionless as they filed through the lunch line, taking each of the mandatory components of the lunch and placing them with a thud onto their trays. They left the line and passed a garbage can. Occasionally, kids took their entire lunches—planned out so thoughtfully by the USDA -- and dumped them right into the trash. Usually the chocolate milk was spared and downed quickly. These kids had seen every menu item a thousand times, they didn't like the food, and if they didn't eat, they could spend lunchtime chatting with friends. Having no recess, when else could they relax? As somebody who values lunch and a break in the middle of the day to relax and socialize with coworkers, it was hard for me to witness this.
Kids Say the Darndest Things: Day 11
The frozen fruit-juice bar, which I called a fruit "icee" on the blog, was on the menu for the first time. Most of the time, the lunch offerings never contained nutritional facts or ingredients, but sometimes the prepackaged, factory-made products did. The label said that it was supposed to be a "cherry" frozen juice bar, but when I looked at the ingredients, I found out that it contained high-fructose corn syrup as well as Red #40 and Blue #1. Food colorings are often made with synthetic dyes, including Red #40, Yellow #5, Yellow #6, and Blue #1. Research in Europe has revealed that artificial food dyes cause hyperactivity in children.
The Icee was very sweet, as in puckering my lips. I sucked down a few sips and then stopped. It was too sweet for me to finish. Later, I talked to a couple students about the meal. They said they liked it. I asked if they ate everything and one student said he didn't eat the green beans.
The main meal was pasta and it was served with a stiff, prepackaged breadstick made of white flour to satisfy the USDA's requirement for grains, which often leads to the inclusion of two wheat products in every meal. Both of the kids didn't eat the breadsticks because they were "too busy talking" and ran out of time. Can't say that I blame them!
The lack of time for healthy social interaction was only the begin-ning of the problem. My school was on probation for one year for failing to make adequate yearly progress (AYP), which is required by the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. When a school isn't meeting standards and the children are failing to understand basic concepts, I think every rock needs to be overturned to search for the cause. Certainly parents and teachers play huge roles. But when a school is failing, school-based nutrition should be examined, too. Instruc-tional quality is absolutely tied to students' performance, but what about the effects of the high quantity of sugar, sodium, fillers, and food dyes in these processed school lunches? After lunch, I routinely observed glazed-over looks and frequent sleepiness in my students. How could I successfully reach them after they had eaten so much sugar?
Studies have shown that children who suffer from poor nutri-tion during the brain's most formative years score much lower on tests for vocabulary, reading comprehension, arithmetic, and general knowledge.1 Additionally, even moderate undernutrition (inadequate or suboptimal nutrient intake) can have lasting effects and compromise cognitive development and school performance.2 In my work, I have to justify everything I do as it relates to the state learning standards. Oddly, the school lunch program has no ties with the Department of Education, as it is wholly under the jurisdiction of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) was established in part as a way for the USDA to find a market for surplus commodity foods. In 1946, when the National School Lunch Act was signed into law by President Truman, it was a perfect marriage: The USDA had the extra food and children were hungry. To me in 2011, it seems a bit odd that any part of a student's educational day would be governed by the USDA. Some have said that maybe the USDA should get out of the business of school lunches and let the Department of Education run the show. I'm not sure that's the answer, but I would love to see education incorporated into the cafeteria because I believe that school lunch may be one of the most important things in any student's day, as it relates to learning.
One might think that the problem of "bad" school lunch is restricted exclusively to low-income and urban areas. But thanks to a number of conversations I've had on my blog with parents and educators around the country, I have learned that the food I ate all year is the same exact food served in many schools across this country, regardless of district funding. It should be noted that there are some excellent school lunches served in this country and these can be found in both urban and rural settings. But even some of the best-funded schools serve food that is not nutritionally the best for children's needs. However, kids from these homes are able to compensate by eating healthful breakfasts and dinners because they have increased access to fresh food at home. Kids living in homes that are below the poverty line don't always have the ability to eat better at home. The Centers for Disease Control define food des-erts as areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk, and other foods that make up the full range of a healthful diet; according to a 2009 study, such food deserts exist in the United States.3 My school, for example, is within walking distance of McDonald's, but a drive is required to reach a grocery store with fresh, healthful food.
Returning to my room from the cafeteria each day, I passed hundreds of students waiting in line for their food. They looked at me and waved or they checked out what was on my tray. Every single time I saw their faces, I was reminded of why I had decided to eat school lunch just like they did, every day. Many of them come from homes where money is scarce and they get excited about lunch, even when they don't know what it is they are about to eat. For some of these students, the only food they got to eat was what they had at school. In a survey of teachers by Share Our Strength, a national nonprofit dedicated to ending childhood hun-ger in America, 86 percent of teachers reported that many of their students come to school hungry, and 65 percent said that most kids rely on school meals as their primary source of nutrition.4
If we want to give them a fighting chance at life, we need to give them good food at school so that they can learn new things and become the best they can be. They also need to know that fresh food is important to the health of their bodies and their minds.
Free and Reduced MealsTo qualify for free lunch, students' families must have incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level. Children are eligible for reduced-price lunches when their families' incomes fall between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level. "Reduced price" means that the students cannot be charged more than forty cents per lunch. (According to the USDA, from July 1, 2010, through June 30, 2011, 130 percent of the poverty level was an annual household income of $28,665 for a family of four; 185 percent was $40,793.)5
End Notes: Chapter 1
1. J. L. Brown and E. Pollitt, "Malnutrition, Poverty, and Intellectual Development," Scientific American 274:2 (1996): 38–43.
2. Center on Hunger, Poverty, and Nutrition Policy, Statement on the Link between Nutrition and Cognitive Development in Children (Medford, MA: Tufts University School of Nutrition, 1995).
3. For the definition of food deserts: http://www.cdc.gov/Features/FoodDeserts.
4. Share Our Strength's report on hunger: http://Shareourstrength.org/school_breakfast/pdfs/report_full.pdf.
5. National School Lunch Program, Facts Sheet: http://www.fns.usda.gov/cnd/lunch/aboutlunch/NSLPFactSheet.pdf.