After one look at the bagel dog served to her in the Chicago Public School cafeteria where she worked, speech pathologist Sarah Wu's life was changed forever.
"When I ate that first school lunch and I looked at the tray," she says, "I almost got choked up because I worried about my students."
A couple months later, she began a year-long project of eating the school lunch every day, photographing the meal and blogging about it -- under the anonymous pseudonym "Mrs. Q" -- at Fed Up With Lunch.
On October 5, Wu revealed her identity in conjunction with the release of her book "Fed Up With Lunch."
Annie Corrigan: How does it feel to finally be out from behind the curtain?
Sarah Wu: It felt great. It felt like -- finally! Since revealing myself, I've been overwhelmed with a sense of relief.
While I've been blogging about school lunch anonymously, I never expected it to go anywhere, so I didn't think about how it would feel to blog a year of school lunches. What happened was it turned out I had a lot of inner turmoil for however long I've been anonymous, (21 months). I felt a sense of betrayal. I thought, Who's going to hate me after this? I wanted to get it off my conscience. There was this food and I felt helpless and I wanted to get it out there in the world as a public record of the lunches, but for me, there was a lot of almost shame I want to say. I felt like I was keeping a secret, and that made things really hard.
But now that I'm out, the reception has been really great. My co-workers have been really great.
AC: You felt like you were betraying the school district or the idea of school lunch as a whole? Where did that feeling come from?
SW: It's because of my relationship with the lunch ladies and the fact that at least in the eyes of the principal, I've always been a really strong performer; I've always done the right thing. I work very hard. I didn't want to besmirch my reputation by going forward and blogging anonymously because people may have started thinking poorly of me, and that was the last thing I wanted to happen.
But I ended up coming back to why did I act in the first place, and it was because I was bothered by the food. I acted on behalf of my students. So, anytime I really felt any kind of angst, I went back to original intent.
AC: You last spoke with Earth Eats in April 2010, and you said part of the reason you were remaining anonymous was to protect your job. How have your administrators reacted now that they know who you are?
SW: I have gotten no communication with any of the principals of the schools I'm at. I'm a speech pathologist and I work for Chicago Public Schools, and as a speech pathologist, my boss is off site. So, I have gotten no e-mail from her or anything from anyone in administration, except I got one very nice e-mail from the head of food services or nutrition services at CPS. She was very kind and reached out and said I would love to meet with you and discuss your ideas about school lunch. I e-mailed her back the same day to say I would love to meet you and as soon as we can set that up that would be great.
AC: I bet that's a relief.
SW: It's a big relief. But I have to say it's still sort of a question mark. Is administration ignoring me? Or are they afraid to do anything, to reach out? Or, maybe they've been instructed not to contact me. I'm still trying to figure that out.
Chicago Public Schools is so big that the day after I went on Good Morning America for the reveal, I called one of my schools to talk to one of the workers that I work with. I said, "Look, I'm going to have to miss a little more time today. I can't come in because I had to go on a media engagement," and she's like, "Are you okay? What's going on? You've missed some work." And I said well, "I just had a book come out."
You can't assume that just because I had, in the eyes of many, total media saturation that all that information just filters down to everybody in Chicago Public Schools. It's such a big system.
Fed Up With Lunch
AC: Let's talk about the book then. What can folks expect who are going to read it?
SW: The first part is a story of my turning into this school lunch crusader. It starts out with how I started the project and what crossed my mind, my observations and things I wasn't able to share on the blog. I feel like it answers all the questions that anybody who has been following my story has had.
Then I go into a lot of things I found out about the food I ate and the food that the kids eat every day. Things I learned I had no idea about but I think parents really need to know this information.
I also weave in some information about my past, which includes the fact that I used to work for Kraft Foods. I wasn't a speech pathologist straight out of college. I actually went to work for one of the biggest food companies in the world. I think that adds sort of a twist to my whole experience. I returned to graduate school and became a speech pathologist because I wanted to make a difference.
It's so funny that for me food as been a thread throughout my life, and I talk about how I used to work in my mom's coffee shop and what I learned about small business and how to treat customers, which is very similar to that lunch lady relationship with the kid. It's not just here's your lunch. Lunch ladies really care about their students and want them to succeed.
Then the last part of the book is a resource guide for parents, teachers, kids, teenagers and even community members who are nutritionists or chefs who maybe want to go into schools and see what they can do. I offer some of the things that I've learned working for Chicago Public Schools for more than five years: how I believe somebody could make change in a school like I've worked.
Four Ways To Better School Lunch
AC: If you made the rules, tell me four things that you would change immediately about school lunches.
SW: Of course, the processed food is something that needs to change, and I think that requires ingredient transparency. I found out that the pizza I ate had 62 ingredients in it, or a pizza like mine had 62 ingredients. That can't happen. These are children who are developing. Pizza can be made healthy. We almost have to go back to the drawing board. How can we make pizza healthy again?
I would also like to see lunch periods increase in terms of the time allowed. So for example, at my school it's 20 minutes, but that includes lining up, so a lot of the kids barely sit down. It can be a long line. It's just terrible that students like mine, many of whom live below the poverty line, get what could be their best meal of the day, and have somewhere between nine and 13 minutes in which to eat it. That's not really serving them well. Even in terms of their academics, how can you wolf down your lunch and go up to your classroom after that and focus? It's just not good.
And then I'd like to see nutrition education really make a come back. I remember getting maybe I little bit of home ec, and that was one class in seventh grade. We really need to teach kids how to feed themselves. It's beyond just saying you've got to eat broccoli because broccoli is good for your heart or whatever people say. We have to really get hands-on with food and have them make choices and learn this is what this vegetable looks like.
That leads me to my last point about what I'd like to see change in the cafeteria and that would be salad bars. I would love it if every school could have a salad bar, and then give the children the chance to choose their own veggies, which I think would empower them to try different things instead of getting something soggy or mushy and then feeling like you have to eat it. I think it would be better if they could ladle on their tray something that they've made a choice to eat, or maybe they don't make a choice one day but see their friend make an unusual choice and get inspired to try it later in the week.
What's Wrong With Salad Bars?
AC: Let's talk about salad bars in particular. In late 2010, Michelle Obama made a point of pushing salad bars in schools across the country. She made a bunch of public appearances to introduce these salad bars. But since then, there's been a real push back against these because they're not sanitary, because kids won't eat it, any number of reasons. From your position, what is the real difficulty with putting salad bars in schools cafeterias?
SW: I would say that there's a valid point, that you can't just plop a salad bar down in a school and just say go at it. That's where the nutrition education has to come into play.
That's the same kind of thing that I saw even this fall. I saw sweet potatoes on the menu at school, and I was so excited, but then I went down to the cafeteria and I saw that the sweet potatoes were pureed and with the film over the top... They looked terrible. They looked like some hot baby food, and the kids were just tossing them out. I don't even think they knew those were sweet potatoes. I don't think they knew what a sweet potato was.
So that's where I would say we need to have kids get trained on how to use a salad bar and appropriate salad bar etiquette. I think most of them have sneeze guards, don't they?
AC: I think part of it is that the kids are short, so the sneeze guards don't necessarily work. It seems like a cop out, though.
SW: It does seem like a cop out. We've got to find a way because we're talking about our children's health. If they don't get this exposure at school, where are they getting this exposure? Are they going to the fast food joints that are a couple blocks away from school for their meals? And if so, it's no wonder our health care costs are spiraling out of control.
I know a lot of critics say we're spending a ton of money already. How can we spend more? We have to spend it smartly. Thinking about the fact that they are going to throw away so much of their lunch if it's like the sweet potatoes, like I said before. So, they're throwing that stuff away even though we're investing money. We just have to think out of the box, a creative approach. For example, for the salad bar, maybe there does have to be something lower to the level of a smaller child.
As a special educator, I do believe that these are life skills. That's something that I do as a speech pathologist, working with children that can't communicate, trying to give them a voice. Communication is a life skill.
A lot of the things that kids should be learning at the table, they aren't. Their parents are working many different shifts. Nobody's there to cook a fresh meal for them. If the school doesn't do it, and at home the parents are too busy or strapped for cash to do some of this stuff that 50 years ago parents were able to do for their kids... I'm really concerned for our future.
Getting Farmers Involved
AC: Another specific issue in the school food reform movement is the idea of getting food directly from farmers to go straight to the schools. It seems to make a lot of sense: kids would have healthy food, it would be fresh and it would come from farms that are close by. But on the other hand, for Midwestern schools where we're located, the majority of the school year takes place during the cold months when food isn't being harvested. Do you think it's feasible to get farm fresh foods into schools?
SW: There are a couple food service vendors here at Chicago Public Schools, and one of them (not food that I ate), Chartwells, has really been ramping up their farm-to-school program and buying tons of fruit and vegetables from farmers in Illinois. That's really encouraging.
We have to take advantage of what's seasonal because there are so many hidden costs in the transportation of food from other states. They offer fruit cups, and I was really bothered by the fact that there was not a fresh piece of fruit on the tray for the some of the meals. What I've come to realize is that it's really hard to get that fresh fruit seasonally because of where we live.
Before, I sometimes went to the farmers market, but this year I was a regular. Eating school lunch for a year totally changed my relationship with food and now I'm really big into seasonal. The thing is I was going to the farmers market and buying more recently apples and peaches. So, for the first few months of school, there is actually some fresh seasonal fruit and vegetables. I went down the cafeteria to see what was going on there and they're still serving the fruit cups that have been sitting on the shelf.
I understand the perishable nature of fruit, but the fact that at least within the past two months -- I think peaches just went out of season -- we could have maybe gotten a fresh peach on that tray, maybe we could have gotten an apple from Michigan; it's not that far away. Instead we're giving them the fruit cup which has been sitting on the shelf for a year, who knows how long. It's great because it saves them money, or at least they think it saves them money because it sits there on the shelf and doesn't go bad.
But what I think is that we have to approach this differently. How can we support local farmers that really are looking to sell their goods and just have them give it to our school children who really could benefit?
Changes For The Better
AC: Let's end with something positive. You did this project over the calendar year of 2010, so it spanned the second half of one school year and the first half of the next school year. What are the positive changes to school lunch you saw over that time?
SW: I saw quite a few changes. In that time frame, what happened was school lunches became a hot topic on TV, the Let's Move initiative and Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution. In the fall I saw fresh veggies; I saw little bags to fresh broccoli like raw broccoli, and I was really encouraged by that. And I saw more salad and it was in a little cup for the kids. I would love to see more of that happening but also with a little bit of nutrition education getting wrapped up into it so that the kids can understand.
They were really excited. The kids that got salad in a little cup were pretty excited about the salad, and I was actually surprised by that. I wasn't sure what their reaction would be, but the kids were grabbing the salad.
We're talking about lengthening the school day in Chicago, and I would hope that they also look closely at lunch and recess and making sure that those are also either lengthened in terms of the lunch period or, with the recess, adding it. Many schools don't actually have recess at Chicago Public Schools.
AC: Really. How can they get away with that? Don't the kids go nuts and climb the walls?
SW: Oh yeah they do. It's unfortunate.