One Lunch Leads to Action
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 Wu's transformation take place? It all began one day when she forgot her lunch and headed to the cafeteria 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," she relates."I think it was because I care so much about my students. People often read about a problem and there's a distance—like maybe they read something online and get upset about it and then move on with their day; but I faced 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 Wu's mind. "They're super low-income kids," says Wu. "The stories you hear, the things that happen in their lives—they blow your mind, that this is happening and nobody cares and things just keep moving along."
Fed Up with Lunch
The action Wu 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 Wu went forward she began analyzing the food, in addition to 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.
Wu 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—were 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 Wu figured out, the child actually ingested 1,908 calories, with 972 of those calories coming from fat.
As the blog grew in popularity, Wu 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 Wu 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," Wu recalls. "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."
The response from Chicago Public Schools to Wu'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," Wu says. "However, I recently got an e-mail from the head of nutrition services, and I'm going to be meeting with her."
Into the Future
The changes that Wu 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," Wu concludes. "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."
Next week in part two of our Meet the School Lunch Revolutionaries series you'll learn how chef Ann Cooper went from loathing cooking for kids to championing healthy school lunches for them.