Last Wednesday, I spoke on the phone with Mrs. Q of the Fed Up With School Lunch blog, almost to the day in which she hit the halfway point of her “year of school lunches” project.
If you are unfamiliar with her, please read my e-mail interview with her from this past January.
The transcript of our chat follows:
Hi, Mrs. Q. Welcome! So, are you relieved to have a summer free of school lunches?
Oh, gosh. I think ‘relieved’ doesn’t even really encompass how I feel right now. I’m so thrilled. I’m so ready for the Summer.
What was your lunch today?
I thought you’d ask that! We [my husband and I] had soup… and some sardines, and chickpeas. It was very random.
But it didn’t come wrapped in plastic, so that’s a nice change.
Right, exactly. (Laughs)
I was thinking about all the school food that you’ve eaten so far this year and two meals stick out to me most. One is the 62 ingredient pizza. Then, there’s the infamous peanut butter and jelly sandwich that had the Pop-Tart-ish graham crackers standing in place of the sandwich bread. In your years as a teacher, were you familiar with those offerings or did you first see them when you started doing the project?
Oh, I had just seen them when I started doing the project. I had never gone down to the cafeteria when they had peanut butter and jelly on the menu. I just assumed, like anybody else, that it was actual bread and peanut butter and jelly. I didn’t think that it was this mallomar cracker thingy… the weirdest thing you’ve ever seen, or eaten.
I know that was one of the meals that made you feel pretty sick.
Yeah, actually, when I had it in January, it did make me sick. I think. I mean, I could have just felt sick that day by chance, but that was part of what made me feel ill. Then it was served again in June, and that day, I knew it was coming, so I had packed a little salad. I just took a nibble of the sandwich. I couldn’t face another night of feeling sick. I didn’t want to take that risk.
Do you know if any of your students got sick from eating that sandwich?
Not that I could tell.
One thing I’m interested in — that you’ve touched upon in your blog — is the environment in which these lunches are eaten, as far as the students go. Can you give me a visual of the cafeteria in terms of what you see when you walk in, what color the walls are? Can you tell me a little bit about the smells, the sounds…?
Oh, yeah. When you walk in the cafeteria, it’s very drab. It’s sort of a pinky peach color on the walls. There are no murals or anything. There are a scattering of posters, but nothing memorable. It’s VERY loud. Incredibly loud. The kids are screaming, and they are very excited to be at lunch. It’s very hard to have a conversation with another adult. You can’t hear yourself.
The kids don’t get any recess, so it’s really hard to see them there in the cafeteria, using their only escape time to try and wind down the best that they can. I think they really need to be exercised. It’s sad.
Does it have that traditional cafeteria… “unidentified aroma”?
Yes, yes! Well, actually, what’s so interesting is that I can sometimes… now that I’ve eaten so many lunches, I can sometimes tell what’s being served when I’m just walking by, even 500 feet away. I can be, like, “alright, it’s tater tots today.”
Yeah, or I can smell the meatloaf. There is that aroma that’s hard to place. It varies.
Over the past few months, you’ve been awarding titanium sporks on your blog to leaders in the fight for healthy school lunches. Jamie Oliver got one in April, Lisa Suriano of Veggiecation was the May recipient, and it seems, based on the comments I’ve read on your blog, that for this month it could be Chef Ann Cooper, who I love. I know the June spork is the last one, but if you could personally award a fourth one in July, who would you award it to?
I’ve already thought that if I had an extra one, I would love to give it to Ed Bruske, The Slow Cook. He’s done some amazing reporting out of Washinton DC about the school food environment there. His daughter goes to school, and that was his motivation for his series on school food. He also, sort of like me, walked into this in January. He went into his daughter’s cafeteria, because he had heard they made changes. [Turns out] they went from exactly the same foods that I was eating [at my school] to the food they call “fresh cooked”, which is the same food, except that it comes in big boxes and they heat it up instead of serving it in the containers I eat out of.
[Ed] spent a week in the [school's] kitchen, reported on it, and it was very eye-opening. He’s a really excellent writer, I really like his perspective. He’s angry about this. He’s mad. I really like seeing that kind of engagement with this issue.
Speaking of anger and voices being heard, are you still fearful of people knowing your identity?
Oh, yeah. I’m not as fearful as I was in January or February when I was really, really scared. I hadn’t gotten any attention at all [up until that point], and I was just doing this for fun. I didn’t think this was something that anyone would ever notice. So, when people started noticing, I started getting nervous.
Now that I’ve done it for half a year, I feel a lot less worried. I’m still certainly taking precautions, but I feel like at this point, I have the support of so many readers and I’d really be interested to see what kind of grounds [my school's administrators] would have to let me go.
On the other hand, I am thinking about how this project affects me and how I move forward with my own life. I have a platform here that I never, ever expected to create. I’m only going to have this brief window in which I get all this attention, it’s my 15 minutes of fame, and I’m thinking how can I use that to potentially help more kids and see if it provides a career change. In some ways, I might have more fallback now that I’ve gathered up more steam in the project.
It’s funny you say that, because I have a hard time imagining that suddenly, in January of 2011, you go back to your pre-blog life.
I know! I keep thinking that too. I don’t know where I’m headed. Part of me thinks that when an employee does something like this [blog], it’s not exactly the most happy employee ever, you know what I’m saying?
I have seen postings for jobs in other schools and other districts I thought I’d be better suited for, potentially, and that I would get fulfillment from, so I’m thinking, “should I change jobs?”, “how can I leverage this potentially?”. The other thing is, I have a young family. I love working with children, so I wouldn’t want to do any kind of drastic change.
It’s very likely that within the next six months there could be some really wonderful opportunities coming your way. I was also wondering how this project has shaped or altered your career goals. Maybe you still want to be teaching [in the future] but be more involved in the advocacy [side of things]?
Yeah, I’ve come up with some interesting ideas that I’m exploring, but I keep wondering “how can I take this to another level?”. If I wanted to be a nutritionist, I’ve got a great application essay here!
And you’ve got some really good hookups and some really good references! Back to the identity thing, here’s one thing I don’t understand. Prior to eating these lunches… which you eat in your classroom, correct?
Prior to this, weren’t you eating lunch with the other teachers in the teacher lounge?
So… don’t they wonder where you’ve been for the past six months during lunchtime?
(Laughs). I’m very busy. We all are. There’s certain teachers you know never eat in the lounge, and then there are teachers who always eat in the teacher’s lounge. For the most part, I was pretty variable. Now, I just make excuses…. that “I have a lot to do”, which is true.
These lunches are made to be eaten very quickly, so I am able to really down them. I can eat that lunch so fast now and still have enough time to do a couple little things with paper around my desk, or a little organizing before I have to go back.
So you mastered the art of downing school lunch.
I know, isn’t that sad? I can really, really pound it.
Is the plan still that at the end of the calendar year you’re going to have a post on your blog revealing your name? Have you given any thought how you are going to end this project?
I haven’t thought about it at all. I keep thinking to myself, “maybe I should wait a month and THEN reveal myself”, because then it won’t be such a big deal.
Well, I think you should just go on Oprah and reveal yourself that way.
Well, that would give me some kind of immunity. It really would.
Yeah, if you have Oprah’s support, you’re pretty much golden.
I don’t think that I could get in that much trouble if I had that kind of support behind me.
Particularly if you’re one of her favorite things…. or people. (Laughs). I know that originally you had planned to work in a cafeteria as a “lunch lady” this summer, but you’ve since changed that and are now going to be volunteering. Can you tell me — to whatever extent you can — about your summer plans?
It’s going to be pretty low-key, I’m going to be in a cafeteria setting where I’ll be working with kids and food. Working together, from what I understand.
I understand you can’t go into detail.
Do you also still have that plan of uploading some photos on your blog of examples of food marketing geared towards children?
Yeah, I’m doing it a little bit already, with some pictures I’ve taken. I haven’t posted any of them yet, but, yeah, different pictures I’ve taken around the environment. I took a photo of a McDonald’s ad that I’m going to write a whole post on. I’ve been mulling it over. I also took a photo of food advertising form Walmart that I saw on a billboard. I’m very anti-Walmart, so that will be a really fun post to write (laughs).
Yeah, some therapy! The McDonald’s ad, with the recent Happy Meal controversy, is very timely.
Yeah. I really dislike McDonald’s a lot. We’ve never taken our child there. That’s an experience we haven’t had as parents, but we were in a very big cafeteria food court over the weekend, and there was a McDonald’s there. I got a burrito from one stand and my husband got a chicken schwarma from another stand, so totally not your normal McDonald’s fare.
Everyone around us was eating McDonald’s. Our kid was downing the tomatoes from my burrito, and some of the chicken, and the lettuce. The kid next to him was eating fries and nuggets and playing with his Shrek watch [that came in his Happy Meal]. We were having a completely different meal. My kid had a very sensory based meal, where he was diving in with his fingers and getting really messy with the burrito and… that’s how food is supposed to be experienced.
Food should be fun — in the way that you’re saying, sensory-based… not because it’s blue and glows in the dark.
Yeah, I saw our little guy looking at the kid with the watch, and I could see the gears turning there, but luckily I was able to distract him back to the table (laughs). Anything that sparkles attracts kids and they are vulnerable to that, and it bothers me.
Before we say goodbye, I want to play a word association game with you.
You know the drill. I say a word or phrase, you tell me the first thing that comes to mind, and it’s good times all around.
(Defeated) Oh, God!
That says it all! That says it all! Students.
I would say “activist”, “awesome”. You know I’ve been a fan since day one, and I really want to thank you not only for this interview but also for your passion, for your commitment to the cause, and for doing it in such a way that has really captured millions of people. What you’ve done, to me, is astounding and I have a feeling that the rest of 2010 is going to be very interesting and full of positive developments for you.
Thank you so much. I have to also thank you because you were one of the first people to notice what I was doing, and you started that snowball at the top of that hill.
I remember, it was January and someone on Twitter posted a link to your blog. I saw it, and I immediately e-mailed you and asked “can I interview you!?!” because I had this… intuition that this was going to become something really, really big… and I’m glad it did.
It’s been fun sharing the ride the past 6 motnhs. That’s been a great part of the project, interacting with people like yourself and readers through the comments and emails, it’s been really fun.
It has. Thank you again, Mrs. Q. Bye!