The day Chicago Public Schools teacher Sarah Wu (GC07) forgot to pack her lunch changed the course of her life forever.
On that fateful day, the school-based speech pathologist and alumna of the master’s program in speech pathology in Northwestern’s School of Communication had been too busy getting her young son off to daycare and herself off to work. So she, like most of the 1,300 students who attended Haugan Elementary School, headed to the cafeteria.
The menu consisted of a hot dog wrapped in bagel dough—a “bagel dog”—as well as six limp tater tots and a cup of fruit-filled gelatin dessert.
“I found that the food was totally over processed,” she said. “It was nothing I even recognized as real food.”
Even without a nutrition background, Wu said she was appalled by the lunch, not even realizing at the time that the “taters” counted as the federally mandated vegetable and the gelatin dessert as the federally mandated fruit as determined by the United States Department of Agriculture’s National School Lunch Program (NSLP).
Wu could only think of her students, many of whom depended on school lunch to be their primary meal of the day, and how they were not getting the nutrition they needed to thrive and learn. Wu ate what she could of the lunch and went on with her life. But the disappointing meal stuck with her.
A few weeks later Wu made a new year’s resolution “do something meaningful,” and decided to blog about school lunch. Mrs. Q—her undercover identity to protect her job—was born.
Mrs. Q would eat school lunch every day for a calendar year, taking that lunch up to her room where she could surreptitiously photograph the meal and post it to her blog. A simple project? And then Mrs. Q went viral.
Before she knew it, Wu was getting thousands of hits on her blog, and a reporter from the Chicago Tribune was calling for an interview. At first Wu resisted the publicity, but her growing passion for the cause of school lunch reform eventually lead her to agree to speak to reporters under the condition they respect her anonymity. After an AOL Help reporter interviewed Wu and the article ended up on the Yahoo homepage, traffic to her blog soared. Wu was interviewed, with her identity hidden, by Good Morning America, and she was approached by literary agents wanting her to write a book about her experience.
Fed Up With Lunch was published in 2011 by Chronicle Books. The book chronicles Wu’s yearlong lunch project and offers tips to those who want to make changes to school lunches.
Wu’s editors would not allow the book to be published anonymously, so Wu stepped out from behind her persona. “I decided after thinking about it that this is a chance to reach a wider audience and make people think about school lunch,” she said. And she was not fired from her job; on the contrary, she was invited to a meeting with the Chicago Public Schools’ director of nutrition services to discuss school lunch initiatives.
Wu said the worst school lunch she ate during the project was a crumbly cheese lasagna that did not resemble any home-cooked lasagna she’d ever tasted. The best was ground turkey meat over rice in a bowl with some cheese and a side of refried beans and tortilla chips. “I liked that meal because it was the closest to real food,” she said.
Wu said the experience made her more focused on preparing and eating fresh, healthy meals when she, her husband and their son were eating at home. Today, Wu continues to work as a school-based speech pathologist for Chicago Public Schools, and her blog, www.fedupwithlunch.com, carries on as a forum for discussion on school lunch reform.
What does the future hold? More exploration of nutrition and school lunch reform, and maybe another book. But, please, no more bagel dogs.
-Emily Hiser Lobdell (WCAS97, GJ01)