Meet Mrs. Q: Secret Food Critic in the School Cafeteria
One day, a certain Chicago teacher forgot her lunch. (Maybe this has happened to you?) She decided to go to the cafeteria and eat the same school lunch her students were having.
It was a bagel dog, tater tots, and fruit. The teacher didn’t think it was very tasty or very healthy. She was sure that kids needed nutritious food, especially at school, so they could grow and learn.
“It was just mind-blowing to me. I didn’t know what I could do,” she said.
But — lightbulb! — eating that lunch gave her a big idea: She decided to eat the school lunch every day, take a photo of the food, and write about it on a blog called Fed Up With Lunch.
You probably know that a blog is like a journal that you create on a computer and share over the Internet. Lots of people have blogs, but something interesting started happening on the Fed Up With Lunch blog. Lots of people started visiting the blog and talking about it.
Day by day, the teacher wrote about what she ate. The more lunches she ate, the more she thought about the quality of the food. In particular, she was thinking about some kids at her school who didn’t have much money. Some families can’t afford to buy a lot of food — and might not have much healthy food at home. School lunch was a very important meal of the day for those students.
Making her blog even more interesting, this mystery “she” decided to stay anonymous, which means the teacher kept her name a secret. She called herself “Mrs. Q.” (It rhymed with her real name.) Mrs. Q. kept lunching and blogging.
She ate the too-crumbly lasagna.
And the frozen peanut butter and jelly on graham crackers (two thumbs down).
And she ate the Tex Mex turkey with rice, refried beans, and tortilla chips (better).
She tried to find the nutrition information (calories, fat, vitamins, minerals) in the food the cafeteria served. But it was hard to get. So much of the food she was eating seemed to be prepared, prepackaged, and just heated up in the cafeteria kitchen.
It wasn’t like some of the good meals your family might make at home in your own kitchen. The cafeteria didn’t make that much from scratch, like fresh chicken, seasoned and roasted in the oven. Yum, smells good and tastes good!
As the teacher ate lunch and blogged, interest grew. Her blog went from 0 visitors to 1,000 a day. Soon reporters were emailing Mrs. Q. for interviews. She appeared on radio broadcasts, willing to share her voice but not her true identity. She didn’t want the people at her school to know who she was. Because what if they didn’t like what she was doing?
The cafeteria workers were very nice. Would they be angry with her? “A lot of these lunch ladies are really invested in the welfare of these kids,” she said.
But school lunch food needed to be better than it was at her school, she decided. The food should taste good to kids, give them the nutrition they need, and keep them feeling satisfied for an afternoon of learning.
Her big decision came when a book publisher told her they wanted her to write a book. They said she needed to reveal her identity if she was going to write a book about her year of school lunches. Most books have an author’s name on the cover, right?
What do you think she did? She said YES!
She wrote the book and even went on TV talking about her experience with school lunch food. Mrs. Q turned out to be … Mrs. Wu.
Mrs. Sarah Wu, a speech pathologist, to be exact.
And when people learned that Mrs. Q was Mrs. Wu, good things started to happen. Her fellow teachers were supportive. Lots of people wanted to talk with her about how to make school food better. Mrs. Wu did not get in trouble. In fact, she was invited to meet with different people who handle the food buying for Chicago schools.
For quite a few years, many school districts have been trying to make school lunches healthier and more tasty for kids. Some schools are leading the way and others still have work to do, experts say.
The best plans include lots of taste-testing so that kids will definitely eat the new entrees. Kids and parents also need to understand the changes being made.
In lots of places, fresh salad bars have been a big hit. Some schools are actually growing some of the fruits and vegetables that are served in the caf.
There was even a national recipe contest last year to find the best new recipes for school cafeterias. The grand prize went to Porcupine Sliders. (No, the recipe doesn’t call for real porcupine. They were actually turkey burgers.)
In 2012, new rules required U.S. school lunches to include more fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat milk. And in Chicago, Illinois — home to Mrs. Wu — the cafeteria food buyers recently made a big announcement: They will buy more than 2 million pounds of fresh, local Illinois chicken.
And guess what? They will roast those chickens right there in the cafeteria kitchens so they’re fresh and yummy when the kids — and grownups — line up for school lunch.
“I’m so encouraged,” said Mrs. Wu.
On roast chicken day, who will be first in line? Mrs. Wu, of course!
Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: March 2012