CHICAGO -- In January of 2010, an elementary school teacher decided to eat school lunch every day for a year and write about it anonymously as Mrs. Q. on her blog, Fed Up With Lunch.
She secretly photographed the meals, ate them and then described the taste and texture of heavily processed chicken nuggets, an unusual peanut butter and jelly sandwich that made her sick, mystery meats and reheated vegetables. She developed a following of thousands of people.
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This week she is revealing her identity for the first time - Sarah Wu, 34, a speech pathologist in the Chicago public schools - and releasing her new book, Fed Up With Lunch (Chronicle Books). "With the blog, I really wanted a public record of these meals that I couldn't believe were being served to kids," she says. "I thought the book would reach a wider audience."
It all started one day when Wu didn't have time to pack her own lunch and bought a school lunch instead. It was a hot dog encased in soggy dough, six tater tots, a Jell-O cup and chocolate milk, she says. "I thought to myself, 'I cannot believe this is the food the kids are eating.'"
She was working in a large elementary school where more than 90% of the kids qualified for free and reduced lunches. "Many of my students were coming from poverty," says Wu, who has a 3-year-old son. "Their families were living paycheck to paycheck. Many of my students relied on school lunch for their best meal of the day."
In all, she ate 162 school lunches in a year.
She's not the first to complain
Wu is drawing attention to one of the hottest topics in child nutrition: the quality of school lunches. Many consumer advocates, parents and others have been fighting for years for healthier school meals in part because of the current childhood obesity epidemic: A third of children in the USA are overweight or obese.
Almost 32 million kids eat the school lunch every day. Some schools prepare their meals on the premises, some in central kitchens. Other districts use food service companies.
The federal government is developing new nutrition standards for foods served in schools, but in the meantime, how healthy are school meals?
"Out of 100,000 schools in the U.S., there are thousands of schools that are working hard to improve the nutrition quality of school meals, but the majority aren't there yet," says Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
"The overwhelming majority of schools are struggling to serve healthier meals with enough fruits, vegetables and whole grains and moderate in sodium, saturated (animal) fat and sugar - meals that kids will like and enjoy."
Things are slowly improving
Dayle Hayes, a registered dietitian in Billings, Mont., who consults about school lunches around the country, says there have been some "revolutionary changes" in meals the past few years. Some schools are serving pizza made with whole-grain crust and low-fat cheese, baking whole-grain rolls and using local produce or foods from school gardens, she says.
Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association, agrees. "We have seen a tremendous change in the cafeterias in what they are offering and what they are promoting." Wu's story is "one snapshot in one school across the country." Parents need to find out what's happening in their own children's schools, Pratt-Heavner says.
The Chicago Public Schools said in a prepared statement that it is "committed to the health and wellness of our students" and has "increased its choices of fruits and vegetables, as well as whole grains, and eliminated deep fat frying."
Wu says the meals at Haugan Elementary School in Chicago - where she ate the lunches but no longer works - were brought in by a food service management company, not cooked by the cafeteria staff.
"This is not about the lunch ladies who are doing the best job they can. This is about a nationwide nutrition crisis," she says. "These are American kids. They need the best food we can give them."