“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.