The unmasking of a school lunch hero: Mrs. Q speaks
Photo: Jill BrazelSome of you may already know of Mrs. Q, the teacher who blogged anonymously about her adventures eating lunch in the cafeteria of the public school where she worked every day in 2010. Her daily posts included pictures of each day’s meal (pizza, chicken nuggets, pasta with meat sauce, etc.) and brief descriptions of how they tasted and made her feel. This simple formula gained Mrs. Q a huge following of teachers, parents, students, and citizens interested in changing the food system (improving school lunch, many reformers say, could be a step toward combating childhood obesity).
Now that her book, Fed Up with Lunch, has been released, the world can finally know Mrs. Q. as Sarah Wu, a speech pathologist working in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) whose first career, in a weirdly ironic twist, was at Kraft Foods (“I knew that it was not right for me at all,” she said).
Wu’s unlikely rise to food-movement stardom (she’s been featured on The View and Good Morning America) began when she simply forgot her lunch one day and ended up buying one from the school cafeteria. Wu still works for CPS, although she has voluntarily transferred from the school where she ate for a year (for “self-preservation”). Just in time to wrap up National School Lunch Week, we recently had a chance to chat with her about what this project means, for her and for school food everywhere.
Q. How did you decide to commit to this challenge, and why did you take this anonymous, Morgan Spurlock-esque immersion approach?
A. At that point [the beginning of 2010], I had worked for CPS for three years. I’d noticed the food, but I think at the time I was just concerned about doing a great job as a speech therapist. I had a little boy who was just turning one, and starting to eat real food at home, and I was really starting to consider, well, what is it that I’m putting on the table? I had always figured that I was a healthy cook; we didn’t eat fast food. I would never let my son eat what they served me that day, and I was just heartbroken that my students were going home to potentially not very good food, and a lot of them live in poverty — it was pretty disheartening to see that.
I think I ended up making more of a dent by doing what I did, instead of trying to do advocacy at the local level. My objective was to put those lunches out there because I was affected by them. But I didn’t want to be the kind of person [who is] labeled as a rabble-rouser. I’m not like that.
Q. For people who may have already followed your blog, what more does the book offer?
A. As an anonymous blogger, there’s tons that I wasn’t able to say. I didn’t tell anyone that I’d worked at Kraft, which I think adds an interesting dimension. I didn’t tell anybody what the school district was; I didn’t get into a lot of detail, even though I blogged every day. So the book really is a journey; it’s the story of me going along my little way, and everything that I learned about the food system, and ingredients, and health and wellness topics in general. I talk about recess, because the school I was at last year had no recess. People in power making stupid choices on behalf of kids, that’s really the problem.
Q. What’s been the most surprising thing throughout this whole experience?
A. What’s been the most surprising is the reception from my coworkers. They want to talk to me about these issues. For example, a coworker of mine came up to me and said, “I’m so proud of you, the food they’re feeding the kids is crap and we need to change it.” He would never have started that conversation with me [before]. That’s been most surprising, that people were not angry about what I did. I felt a lot of inner turmoil, because I was struggling with the fact that I want to be a great speech pathologist, I want to be a good employee, I take pride in my work, and I didn’t want to jeopardize that. And I didn’t want to be labeled as this bitch. So I totally miscalculated their response.
Q. For parents who are aware of or concerned about their kids’ school lunches, but aren’t sure where to start in terms of making changes, what’s your advice?
A. I’ve changed my son’s daycare food slightly by just asking the right questions. It’s either parent-teacher night, or report card pickup day (which is what they do in Chicago Public Schools) — that’s when you want to ask those questions. Explore the school — find the lunchroom manager, find the gym teacher, and people who are invested in health and wellness. Chat them up, start asking those questions, talk to the principal, and be nice about it. [Kindness] goes a lot farther than if you come down hard.
Q. Have your blog and book had any effect on Chicago Public Schools?
A. CPS issued a statement last week saying they are adhering to USDA standards and they have been improving. And they’re right — I [ate school lunch] for a calendar year, January to December, so I saw two different school years. There was improvement; there were more fresh veggies and fruit. I don’t want to take credit for it because everyone’s thinking about this right now. It’s amazing.
Q. So how did eating this food every day make you feel? Did it have any effect on your health?
A. I started eating school lunches and it just completely wreaked havoc on my body. I was so grateful to have summer break for recuperation. In June I went to the doctor and got diagnosed with mild asthma, which was odd, and I got a prescription for an inhaler. But I also lost 20 points on my cholesterol, and I think it’s because [I was] eating better than I’ve ever eaten in my life outside of school lunch.
I had suffered from irritable bowel syndrome for many years, and I felt like I sort of had it under control, so I didn’t really think about the fact that if you eat school lunch it’s going to aggravate everything. I thought, it’s just food, and I think that’s how a lot of parents think — who cares, it’s no big deal. But really what I learned is: Food is everything! It’s our whole life.
Q. You seem to have gained a particular affection for school lunch ladies (or men, as the case may be). What’s that about?
A. The person who feeds you creates a relationship with you, you know? It’s not just a transaction, it’s that human contact. When I feed my son, it’s not just putting food in front of him, there’s love involved, and that’s exactly what happens with lunch ladies. It’s not easy working in the lunchroom — it’s hot, you burn yourself all the time, they’re tired, but they’re there for the kids. Lots of times lunch ladies have
other roles in the school. The lunch lady at [the school where I ate for a year] mentored some of the difficult children who were having tough times behaviorally. She reached out to them. That’s something I don’t think people realize.
Q. So now that your book is out, after the publicity dies down, what’s next?
A. Oh my gosh. I don’t have a clue. I just enjoy my work. I guess I’m open to possibilities. I didn’t do this because I hated my job, I did this because I love my job. So if everything’s the same, that’s okay.