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Archive for the ‘Mrs. Q’ Category

2011: A Year to Remember (and Forget!)

It wasn’t until I started compiling stories for this post that I realized just how much had taken place this year on issues of food, agriculture, and nutrition. While by no means a definitive list, I think it covers the most substantial events.

So, if you’ve been spelunking in Antarctica for the past twelve months — or just want a short trip down memory lane — let’s review 2011, the year where:
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Speaking/Catching Up With…: Mrs Q (The Transcript)

FINAL2Last 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.”

Wow.

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?

Uh-huh.

Prior to this, weren’t you eating lunch with the other teachers in the teacher lounge?

Yes.

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.

Yeah.

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.

Oh boy.

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.

Okay.

Spork.

Food.

Chicken nuggets.

Yuck.

USDA.

(Defeated) Oh, God!

That says it all!  That says it all!  Students.

Fun.

Fruit icee.

Terrible.

Tater tots.

Tough.

Mrs. Q.

Cute! (laughs)

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!

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Six Months Later, Speaking With…: Mrs. Q

nuggets1Here is my latest phone interview with “Mrs. Q” of the “Fed Up With School Lunch” blog.

In this chat, Mrs. Q. gives me a “sight, sound, and smell” tour of her school’s cafeteria, discusses her Summer plans, shares insight into her career future, and even plays a fun game of word association!

My first interview with Mrs. Q (back in January) provides insight into, and background info about, her blog project.

Enjoy!

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Speaking With…: “Mrs. Q”

0112001153-759571“Mrs. Q” appeared in the blogosphere at the beginning of 2010 and has quickly become the talk of nutrition and foodie cyberspace.

In case the name does not ring a bell, she is the author of the Fed Up With Lunch: The School Lunch Project blog (a must-read!), where she chronicles her experiences as a school teacher who, starting this month, has vowed eat school lunch every Monday through Friday for one year.

FYI: The picture that accompanies this post depicts a typical lunch for Mrs. Q these days.

The project is absolutely fascinating, as it perfectly captures the problems of school lunch — poor nutrition, odd flavors and textures, environmental unfriendliness (plastic, plastic, and more plastic!), and the effects of cheap crop subsidies on individual health.

Unlike every other critic of school lunch, though, Mrs. Q lines up every day to get a taste.  Consider it a more realistic “Super Size Me” (while many individuals consciously choose to eat McDonald’s thirty days in a row, these school children — many of whom are on cost-reduced or free-lunch programs, have little to no say when it comes to their lunch options).

This past weekend I had the opportunity to interview Mrs. Q via e-mail.

Read below to learn more about her project and her thoughts on school lunch.

When did the state of school lunches first come up as an area of concern for you?  I know you have been a teacher for four years, but is this an issue that became important to you recently (after the birth of your child), or did you have a partial interest in this before you began your teaching career?

I really never gave much thought to school lunches before I became a teacher. I moved around a lot as a kid and I had various different quality lunches, but I don’t remember much. When I started teaching I noticed how bad they were, but I didn’t think there was much I could do. It was only after becoming a parent that I started worrying about the kids. Interestingly my son is at a daycare that gets semi-institutional food, but their meals are higher quality with more variety. For example, their menu includes items like rice, noodles, tuna, ravioli, yogurt, soynut butter on graham crackers, eggs, etc.

Has school lunch ever come up as a concern in meetings with administrators, other teachers, and/or parents?  If so, what was the context in which it was discussed?

At my school I have never been to a meeting where this was discussed. It’s only been over lunch with other teachers where we have brought this up casually.

How do you manage to maintain anonymity in your school?  I assume you wait in line for your lunch alongside students.  Is it common for teachers to purchase school lunch every day?  Also, where are you taking those photographs (which are styled very well, by the way!)?


Not a single soul in the school knows about what I’m up to. I am friendly with the lunch room manager and I just told them that I’m going to be eating a lot of school lunches because I’m lazy and I don’t want to prepare food at home.  It is true that not having to pack my lunch in the morning does save me time, but of course my excuse is a half-truth.

As a teacher I can cut in front of the students. I usually try my best to get lunch either before most students line up or after they have been served. I don’t like cutting in front of them when I know that this could be their only/best meal of the day.

It is not common for teachers to buy lunch every day. Most teachers do not buy lunch. There is one teacher who is considered to buy lunch “frequently” and that is once a week. I have to say that last year I looked at her and thought that was different.

I used to eat lunch with other teachers in the teachers’ lounge but I have been so very busy that I started eating by myself in my room. That way it is a “working” lunch. Now I’m eating lunch by myself, it’s very easy to take pictures of the food. The other bonus of the food is that it can be eaten fast and I really need that with my workload. The lunches I used to pack for myself were bigger and required heating up, which took minutes off a short lunch (20 minutes to eat & use the facilities).

The pictures are taken with my cell phone camera, which is an old model! My mother also commented that she liked the photos, which I thought was pretty funny. My mother is an artist so she thinks she gave me an “artist’s eye” and she is taking the credit for that.

You have now been eating school lunch for 10 days.  What can you tell me about any physical and/or emotional changes you have experienced?

There have been no issues yet. Ten days is not very long. One day after lunch I felt nauseous, but thankfully it passed. But the big thing was that I realized I am lactose-intolerant because I never before consumed milk at lunchtime and I had some “aftereffects” towards the end of the day. I had reduced my milk consumption to almost nothing because I had to go totally non-dairy for my son while I was breastfeeding. Also during the winter I wanted to have a hot breakfast to combat the cold outside and so I switched from cereal to oatmeal.

With the re-introduction of milk, my body is sort-of getting a lactose jolt. I’ve stopped drinking the milk for now. I may purchase some lactose-enzyme so that I can drink the milk at school and stay true to the goals of my project.

What effect does knowing, from the moment you walk into your school, that you are eating school lunch do to your psyche?  For example, do you now view food more through a “sustenance” lens than a “pleasurable” one?  Does it make you “dread” lunch?

It’s only been 10 days so I don’t think about it at all. I’m sure there will be “moments of dread” in the future. The first few days I started doing this I was so nervous buying lunch. My heart was pounding. But now I’ve gotten in a rhythm. I just breeze in and out and no one cares. At this point I keep wondering if there will be new meals that I haven’t tried still coming. Since I’ve only had one repeat meal, I’m not bored yet.

I’m so busy at work that I don’t think about the project at all. It might be hard to believe but that’s how it is. Teaching is a “performance” job: you have to be “on” all the time. If I have a bad night with my son and don’t get much sleep, I can’t just tell myself, “oh, I’ll just have an easy day in my cubicle and surf the net.” I still have to go into a classroom, teach, and manage behavior. I can’t ever “phone it in.” How about leaving early? Teachers can never leave early. What principal would hire a sub for just the last hour of the day? It’s a very demanding job and I have a lot of things on my mind, mostly how to meet the students’ needs. I don’t think about the project at all until it’s lunchtime and I think, “Oh yeah, I’d better get my three bucks and head to the cafeteria.”

Have you spoken to your students (now or previously) about the lunch offered by your school?  If so, do your students consider this to be “normal” food, both in terms of taste and appearance?  Your photos clearly illustrate why many children think vegetables are “gross” — the ones they are exposed to at school are simply steamed.  No care is taken to make them taste appealing!

I don’t want to reveal too much about my students, but some have special needs. That means that it’s hard for them to express themselves and answer questions. I have asked kids at the end of the day, “What did you have for lunch today?” They don’t remember! As for the idea of “normal” food, the kids don’t know anything else so they probably couldn’t even conceptualize what “normal” means. What is “normal” to Americans anyway? The vegetables must be steamed like you suggest, but I thought there was something funny going on with the broccoli: it was almost sugary. So who knows what is put on some of the stuff.

It seems to me, based on your posts, that students are not given any choice whatsoever when it comes to their lunch.  Is that correct?  Meaning — do students have a choice between unflavored and chocolate milk?  Or, say, a choice between a side of rice or a side of steamed vegetables?

There is no choice. The little packages are stacked and the kids grab one stack, put it on their tray, and move to the end of the line where they hand in their lunch ticket. Sometimes I see a small “a la carte” cart with pretzels and cookies for the kids to buy. I don’t see it all the time and probably less than 20 students in the whole school would ever buy extra food. There isn’t much time to eat.

How familiar are you with the state of school lunches in your school district (and surrounding ones)?

I’m not familiar with the rest of the district. I think most of them are like my school from what I know. I know one school had a salad bar, but that was a few years ago and I don’t know what happened to it. That school made headlines at the time.

What is the age range of the students eating these lunches?

Age 4 to age 11.

Is there anything I did not cover that you would like to say?

The school also serves breakfast to any students that come early and who want it. It’s very caring of the school. Unfortunately it doesn’t appear that too many students take advantage of the free breakfast benefit (maybe 20% of the school?). As far as I can tell, breakfast is not available to the teachers. If I can get more information about breakfast, I’ll post it on my blog.

Many thanks to “Mrs. Q” for her participation.  Be sure to check out her fascinating blog or follow her on Twitter.

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