From Jamie Oliver's new television program "Food Revolution" to First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move Initiative, the issues of childhood obesity and school lunch reform are recently enjoying a lot of public attention.
Among those shedding light on school lunches is an elementary teacher in the Midwest who goes by the pseudonym "Mrs. Q" to protect her identity.
She has resolved to eat the same lunches as her students every day in 2010 and is documenting the meals with her cellphone camera and blogging about her experiences each day on her website, "Fed Up With School Lunch."
I spoke with Mrs. Q by phone and asked her to describe her project and why she was doing it.
Mrs. Q: It was just something that I sat down to write my resolutions this came to mind, and a I thought, you know, this is just crazy enough. I'm just trying to show the world what I see in the cafeteria at my school.
Megan Meyer (Earth Eats): What prompted the decision to take on this project?
Mrs. Q: there have been times where I have forgotten my lunch or I just didn't have time to pack anything, and I've had to sporadically consume school lunch in the past.
I just came to the conclusion after I had a bagel dog, at some point in the fall last year, and I thought to myself -- I couldn't believe that that was going to be it.
You know, there was a bagel dog, and I think there might have been a fruit cup, and I couldn't believe that that was given to a student, and then they would have to go back to class and take a math quiz or something.
For some of the kids in my school, many of them do not get good food models at home, so this may be the best meal they get all day.
I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with a hot dog. But as far as having processed food every day and it also being one of your better meals, it just sort of breaks my heart a little bit.
Good Days And Bad Days
MM: On your blog you describe the food you eat every day, and post a picture of it – and it looks like there are some good and some bad days.
Mrs. Q: I find that some of the food isn't very good. There was a cheese lasagna, for example, that was terrible. It wasn't even like pasta. It was like this crumbly stuff. I could barely take a couple bites.
And there was this "peanut butter and jelly sandwich" – and I say that sort of in quotes because it was peanut butter and jelly on like a graham cracker thing and then it was foil-wrapped. It almost looked like an ice cream sandwich. It was very thick.
For me, pizza and hot dogs are certainly not my favorites. I know the kids get really excited about pizza, but what I like to eat on the menu at my school is the pasta. I love pasta, I love comfort foods.
They have this rotini with this meat sauce on top, and I really enjoy that. They also offer chili, and that's good, too.
I should say that the way most people and most people in my generation – 30s, 40s, you know, even older – we imagine lunch ladies dishing out onto a divided tray food that was prepared on site.
But my food comes in very small little packages, and a lot of the blog commenters have pointed out that it looks like a TV dinner.
So, when I talk about pasta, it wasn't plopped on my tray from like a ladle, it's in a pre-packaged container with plastic on top. I have to cut open the plastic to get into the food.
Walking In Students' Shoes
MM: How does it feel to be in your students' shoes, what are you experiencing?
Mrs. Q: It's interesting that you bring that up. What I've noticed is that there are times when they serve something and I notice how my students are in the afternoon. I feel like I can almost draw a line between what they ate and how they're acting.
For example, they offer this fruit bar. With the USDA regulations, you have to offer fruit every lunch. And sometimes they offer fresh fruit, but then they offer this fruit bar other days.
I call it an Icee, but it's like frozen fruit juice. And the kids, because of reduced times to eat lunch and they want to chat, often times they get served this meal, and they'll just suck on this fruit bar and eat that instead of other foods.
The days they get the fruit Icees, I often see some blank looks as their blood sugar goes up and then goes down rapidly as they sort of crash off of that because they didn't eat the protein component of the lunch.
More recently, one of the fruit bars that was offered was 100% juice and I was really happy to see that. So there was not any corn syrup in that.
I should say that I am not a nutrition expert. That's not my area of specialty. I'm not putting myself out there as a nutritionist at all. These are things I've learned from reading the requirements set forth by the government for what kids need to eat -- the meal patterns from the USDA that dictate what foods are offered and in what quantities.
Positive And Negative Reactions
MM: Back to the blog itself, what kind of feedback are you getting and and where is that feedback coming from?
Mrs. Q: I've gotten a ton of positive feedback and the comments are coming from all over the country. I get comments from parents. I get comments from teachers, lunch ladies, nutritionists – you name it, they've commented.
They tell me the lunches they eat at their school are…they tell me: "yep, that's exactly what we're getting at our school – maybe not as much packaging, but, yes, we're getting the pizza, we're getting the hot dogs -- all that stuff, the fruit cups."
Or, they're telling me: "I am happy I don't have to eat that. That's not the kind of lunch we are getting in my school."
And then I get people who say – and this is the minority – I do get people who say: "wow, that's actually better than what we get in my school." So, it's all over the board.
MM: Are you getting any negative feedback?
Mrs. Q: Yes, I do. There are people who say: "What are you really doing? You're just eating lunches, what are you doing? You're doing nothing. That doesn't matter at all."
And then I get people who say, "You need to reveal yourself. Tell us who you really are." I get a couple of those, and those people are always anonymous, which I find really funny.
It does bother me that I get negative comments. I do take them to heart, but I'm just keeping on.
MM: Why have you chosen to remain anonymous?
Mrs. Q: Well, you know, I feel like my job could be in jeopardy. I think every teacher is worried about their job in this economy with budget cuts. Every state is really feeling it.
I don't want the administration to have a reason to let me go if they're looking at their staff. I think it would be easy to say, let's get rid of the one who's blogging about all the lunches we serve to the students.
More Salad, Less Pizza
MM: based on your experiences so far, what kinds of change would you like to see effected?
Mrs. Q: First of all, it would be great if we could have a salad bar in every school.
I would also like to see – and this is probably pretty unpopular with the kids – I would like to see pizza being offered way less.
At most schools, it's getting offered at least once a week. And by at least, I mean that in the high schools, pizza can be an option everyday. So if you wanted to, you could eat pizza every single day you go to school.
I think there's something wrong with that.
I'd also like to see the regulations tightened up so that a fruit cup or a fruit bar is not considered a fruit. Let's give them real fruit.
I do get real fruit some days. And that's what I just don't get. I don't understand why I can't just get a real apple, a real orange, a real pear, a real banana every day instead of the processed fruit.
And the other thing – as it relates to vegetables: tater tots and fries count as a vegetable. So if they offer tater tots or fries, it counts as a vegetable. And in the high schools, that's all that [the schools] are required to do. In my opinion, that's not a veggie. It may be made of potato, but it's not a fresh vegetable.
And then finally when it comes to the requirements for bread. When there is a rice offered, a lot of times you have to add a bread to it – because rice does not count as much as like an actual bread.
And what's funny about that regulation is that pizza meets the requirement for bread. So you don't have to offer an additional bread.
But rice, which is a staple grain for probably the majority of people on this planet, but for whatever reason, the USDA makes a lot of schools offer a piece of bread with their rice, which just seems very strange.
It's just an investment. It's an absolute investment in children, to provide them with food at school that is really, really good nutritious food.
And I, personally, think it's just worth every penny.
Making A Difference: One Child At A Time
MM: Do you have advice for people who want to become more involved or learn more about school lunches.
Mrs. Q: I would encourage parents to see if they can go to their school and see if they can have a meal with their child at lunch -- so that they can be aware of what their child might be eating.
Even if we do do change and we put a salad bar in every school, and we offer fresh fruit and veggies and all the things I think are very important -- there also needs to be another component, and that would be education.
For example, I did work with some of my students. We made a salad -- I brought in fresh veggies, and we put it together. Everybody had a job. We had tomato. We had spinach. We had salad, cucumber, carrots – they were pre-shredded, so that was pretty easy.
And we made this big salad and we all put some on our plates.
Some of the kids were really turned off. They said, "I don't want to eat that."
And I said, "You really need to try it."
One boy in particular said, "I don't like any of this." But I said, "I really want you to try it."
And I have to say, he tried it. He tried every vegetable and he told me that he liked it and that now he likes those vegetables [laughs].
We have to sort of stand over them and say, "You have to try. You just don't know. You might actually really like it."
I think to myself, if I could change one student in every classroom, and I could turn them on to fresh vegetables, that alone would make a huge difference in this country.
Mrs. Q's blog, "Fed Up With School Lunch," includes not only what she eats day to day, but also health updates, analyses and posts by guest bloggers from around the country and around the globe. You can also follower her on twitter, she's @fedupwithlunch.
If you're a parent, teacher or student, we'd love to hear about lunch at your school, leave a comment or send us photos: eartheats @ gmail.com.