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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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24 Comments

  1. Karen said on January 18th, 2010

    I have been reading in Aww her blog, from her comments lunches are very different school to school. My kids get packed lunches with real fruit and veggies.

  2. Chris said on January 18th, 2010

    Thanks, Mrs. Q. Our schools must share the same lunch vendor, as these are the same lunches in the same packaging that my Chicago Public Schools students must endure every day. I am so glad someone is finally shedding some light on this situation. The CPS website calls these lunches “nutritious, appetizing meals that will contribute to the growth and good health of our students.” I tend to disagree with that statement and think these lunches are full of salt, sugar and preservatives. I hope that as a result of your blog, changes will come for the students of Illinois.

  3. Andy Bellatti said on January 18th, 2010

    Karen,

    This isn’t about packed lunches, though. This is about children (mostly from low-income families) who receive school lunch at a reduced cost (or for free). For many families, these school lunches provide some financial relief, but at what cost?

    It seems very disturbing to think that this food is given such little though — I suspect largely because it is perceived by many as “scraps” for those “who should be thankful they are getting this benefit”. There is a lot more going on behind the scenes!

    I can’t tell you how many times I have heard awful comments along the lines of “They are getting all this food for almost no money and they have the audacity to complain?”

  4. drasil said on January 18th, 2010

    I bristle a little when I hear people compare Mrs Q’s project to “Super Size Me,” mostly because I found that documentary to be a little shallow on facts and a lot heavy on dramatization (the scene in the car where Spurlock throws up comes to mind).

    Meanwhile, Mrs Q is making a very clearly nonjudgemental observation about a serious problem, allowing others to formulate their own opinions. This is incredibly effective, because the fact of the matter is that these photos and commentary speak for themselves! This food is clearly sub-fast food quality, and I can’t imagine any person knowledgeable about nutrition being anything but incredulous that this food is fed to children every day all over the country. No dramatic muckraking needed–Morgan Spurlock could learn a thing or two from Mrs Q.

    Also, I too am a teacher and believe very strongly that this issue is one that is directly linked to socioeconomic status; my school district is a particularly wealthy one, and the school-provided lunches look absolutely NOTHING like Mrs Q’s lunches. They’re catered by contract with a local company and are more appealing and more nutritious than that which Mrs Q is documenting. Unfortunately, I’m well aware that mine is the exception and hers is the rule.

  5. Jessica said on January 18th, 2010

    Love this idea! It is a good way to shed light on how un-nutritious children’s school lunches can be.

  6. Michele said on January 28th, 2010

    I went to a middle school orientation last week for my oldest child. The 6th grade principal told all the children (with a huge smile on her face) that they would get cheeseburgers and pizza and chips and Little Debbie snack cakes everyday for lunch!! I was appalled that my child’s school is actually promoting that they eat this food on a daily basis. Something has to change.

  7. Amy said on February 1st, 2010

    I find this to be a great project. We are lucky that our children aren’t given a lunch like this. I can understand how Mrs. Q could end up feeling less than par after eating the school lunches just from the pictures posted. I hope this blog really does get someones attention to serve the children better food.

  8. Patti said on March 15th, 2010

    Whar an irony that this is being done in the state where the American Dietetic Association has its national headquarters.

  9. Cheryl said on March 15th, 2010

    Mrs. “Q”,

    Don’t you dare feel guilty or any kind of turmoil….you are the only one — that I know of — that has taken on this atrocity within our schools. People complain so much about how obese our children are, yet the place that they spend at least 50% of their lives are actually causing the problem. Having soda and snack machines available to our kids only makes it worse.

    I live in PA. and have had 2 kids, 6 yrs. apart, go through our school system. No matter how many people complain about the quality of the school lunches, nothing has ever been done.

    You are blazing a much needed trail, Mrs. Q….stay strong!!!

  10. Barb said on March 15th, 2010

    I understand Mrs Q being afraid of backlash but anonymous information is misinformation. There are some super fantastic school lunch programs in IL. There are many schools that support a food service director with trainings and carreer development in order to insure kids get great nutritious balanced meals. These directors are members of the School Nutrtion Association which is constantly looking for and sharing the best ways for these schools to serve nutritious meals within a VERY tight financial budget.
    By the way, at the most, kids eat 180 lunches at school. 3 meals per day equals 1095 meals. Parents need to take a little ownership of what their kids eat. It starts at home!

  11. Sherri said on March 15th, 2010

    I found that through research no matter the options offered at school for lunch that the nutritional levels are very, very poor. When my children were pre-schoolers they ate anything I prepared at home. When they got to school and ate lunch at school the refuse to eat home cooked food – look at the salt and sugar content of prepackaged foods, Kids are off school lunch and eat real foods again. The people the schools employ to serve food would be better suited to monitor microwave use to heat foods from home for the students. Most school dont even cook anymore – everything is brought in and heated or somply left to “warm-up”

  12. Bill said on March 15th, 2010

    The Robert Woods Johnson Foundation would love to get this information.

  13. Lynn said on March 15th, 2010

    This is a great project, and I am pleased that Mrs. Q had the courage to take this on. I don’t even know if they actually cook in the cafeteria’s now days. It’s seems everything is just warmed up, and the cafeteria workers simply “serve” the food. It would be nice to see actual cooking taking place or just healthier food choices, and better quality overall. A salad bar would be ideal for all schools, not just high school. I hope this project gets the proper response it deserves. The teacher should not lose her job, yet be commended for caring about these children above and beyond the call of duty. My children’s school made several changes…they have processed foods, but are taking steps in the right direction. We do not have the packaged/hot lunch cold lunch, but I have seen that at other schools and feel that some animals eat better.

  14. Cheryl said on March 15th, 2010

    Todays school lunches are reheated & prepackaged !! My mom was a school COOK!! She had to PLAN the means –ORDER the food (from REAL food suppliers ) They BAKED the bread,rolls, hotdog/hambuger buns — pizza crust — cinnimon rolls ( the class mates I see from elementry school STILL talk about her rolls LOL ) they baked the turkeys – - had REAL meat for the spaghetti sauce from scratch !! The GOV gave them flour — rice -cheese (remember the Gov blocks of cheese?? :) ok ok WE did have fish sticks on FRI –LOL My mom didnt have a degree but she did attend classes — and food shows — the smells of COOKING were all over the school — plus we had RECESS- – and 30 min to MOVE – STOP !! use common sense — kids NEED a break! or they CANT get up and move — we needed that play time after lunch- –

    PUT the COOKING back in the schools- GET rid of the mass market pre heat FAKE food!!!

  15. kaytee said on March 15th, 2010

    What I noticed about school lunches when my kids were in elementary school– a lot of the kids who were getting them “free”, did not eat them. Some even went directly from the exit door of the food line to the trash cans to dump the whole tray. Very few kids liked the 1% milk, so most of that ended up tossed, even when the rest of the lunch was eaten– about the only time milk was consumed, was when they had chocolate milk. Another problem– they insisted on serving whole apples. Kinda hard for a kid with no front teeth to eat… or for some of the littler ones to even open their mouths wide enough to bite in… and of course, a kid can’t bring, or get from the cafeteria, anything to cut food with.
    Briefly, the cafeteria was collecting the unwanted milks and apples– and giving them to a homeless shelter (which sent somebody to pick them up). Then, they were told they couldn’t do that because the food had been purchased with federal money specifically for the lunch program….

  16. Aileen said on March 15th, 2010

    I am a former supermarket owner who started a “Shop’n Learn” program for school children.. where they came in as a field trip and learned about nutrition. I can tell you that the parents needed the education as well as the children. I toured over 1,000 local children a year, and still saw their parents making “cheaper” food choices, telling me that they cannot afford good food. Parents have to realize that cheap, processed foods are costing their children good health – many of my customers would never think of putting cheap oil in their cars; substandard gasoline; you get it…. but put processed cheap food into their children. Yes, Soda is cheaper than milk. But who called that nutrition? Lets view food as nutrition, not filler.

  17. Andy Bellatti said on March 15th, 2010

    Aileen,

    Fascinating. I love the analogy you make about fueling one’s car and feeding one’s children.

  18. Andy Bellatti said on March 15th, 2010

    Kaytee,

    The second half of your comment was anger-inducing. I can’t believe food could not be donated to a homeless shelter because it was ONLY for the lunch program. Argh!

    You make an excellent point about the problem presented by whole apples. They should be served sliced (unpeeled)….

  19. Andy Bellatti said on March 15th, 2010

    I agree with everything you say, Cheryl. There are some programs (such as S’Cool Food) that empower cafeteria employees by providing them with cooking skills and fashionable uniforms. They feel like they are PART of a process (ie: chopping and cutting vegetables for a soup) rather than a person who pushes a button to heat up the pre-made pizzas.

  20. Andy Bellatti said on March 15th, 2010

    I agree, Lynn — it IS commendable that Mrs. Q. has undertaken this project. She should be awarded a “Teacher of the Year” award!

  21. Andy Bellatti said on March 15th, 2010

    I don’t agree that anonymous information is misinformation. It is the content that matters — not what Mrs. Q’s real name is.

    The photos speak for themselves. What difference would it make if, when reading the Fed Up With School Lunch blog, you knew that Mrs. Q’s name was, say, Jane Doe?

    As for the argument that parents need to take ownership — no one (especially not Mrs. Q) is denying that foods eaten at home are important. However, think about the fact that this is what children are eating during the schoolday. Food — whether negatively or positively — affects mood, concentration, and energy levels. This is one of many reasons why school food is SO important.

  22. Andy Bellatti said on March 15th, 2010

    Patti,

    I hadn’t made that connection. I love it.

  23. Rob Poulos said on July 22nd, 2010

    She seems like an interesting lady. I don’t remember my school lunches being that bad though! Pizza and tacos were my favorites, although they certainly could have been much healthier and environmentally friendly.

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