The XX Factor

DoubleX Book of the Week: Fed Up With Lunch

She called herself Mrs. Q.

In October of 2009, she was a speech pathologist, working in a Chicago Public School, who’d forgotten her lunch. But the school has a cafeteria, right? No need to go hungry. She purchased the school lunch: a bagel dog, a Jell-O cup, six tater tots, and chocolate milk.

The bagel dog (a hot dog encased in soggy dough) came in a plastic package with the words “Barkin’ Bagel” written across the front. Tough on the outside and mushy on the inside, it was like no bagel I had ever tasted. The hot dog was bland, not juicy. The wimpy tater tots (which counted as that day’s federally mandated vegetable) were pale and wilted in my mouth. Instead of a piece of fruit, like the crunchy apple I would have packed if I’d had time that day, I was given a few cubes of pear suspended in bright red jello.

It wasn’t anything she herself would feed her child, and certainly nothing she’d want to eat. But the number of children eating free and reduced-price lunches in Mrs. Q’s school was “well over 90%” that year. For many, the Barkin’ Bagel and the soggy tots might be the most complete meal they ate all day. The outraged Mrs. Q became a secret activist. She bought her school lunch every day, took a picture, and, in the tradition of Morgan Spurlock, actually ate it. And she blogged about it.

After a year of eating school lunches (and an extra year to write more about it), Mrs. Q revealed herself this week as Sarah Wu, now the author of Fed Up With Lunch, the book, not just Fed Up with Lunch, the blog, and still a speech pathologist in the Chicago Public Schools (at a different school). The blog attracted far more attention than Wu expected, leading to everything from conversations with Jamie Oliver to a shrouded appearance on Good Morning America. Far more people than she’d realized were interested, and outraged, by the state of the school lunch. And a funny thing happened along the way: The lunches began to get a little better.

Wu’s timing couldn’t have been better, either. With all of the attention surrounding childhood obesity, she started her blog at a moment when the country really started to look at how we’re feeding kids, and even more particularly at how federal tax dollars are feeding our nation’s kids. The book turns out to chronicle not just bad lunches, but attempts at better lunches, and where they succeed and fail. Because Wu is eating her lunch daily, in the school, she can see what the kids like about the food, and what they don’t, and it’s not always what you’d expect. Some kids will eat six cookies, but then, that means five kids were willing to give up the cookie (generally a heavily processed sugar cookie with glitter sprinkles). Much of the food got thrown away not because kids didn’t like it, but because they didn’t have time, in a 20-minute period that included waiting in line, to eat it all.

Fed Up With Lunch isn’t a long book, but it’s an enlightening one. Wu also notes the problems with the lunches her son gets at his private daycare: Those, too, were mostly processed, although these were the processed foods most of use in our own kitchens from time to time. Ease of preparation and storage takes precedence over freshness at even the wealthiest schools.

Wu is never wholly negative. The cafeteria serves food she likes on occasion; it adds salad and fresh broccoli at the beginning of the next school year. (Her blogging takes place over the 2010 calendar year, and so encompasses two school years.) Her openness to seeing the good things about the meals (an attitude that, after looking at her daily lunch photo log, I’m not sure I would have shared) makes her criticism more palatable, and more likely to be effective. Because she’s in the schools, her solutions tend to be practical, and when they’re not, the thousands of people who made up her blog community have helped push them in that direction.

Fed Up With Lunch will be read by parents and administrators across the country, and Sarah Wu has already become one of the advocates for change she hoped to be at the beginning of the project, but I hope she gets to keep her day job—not because I didn’t enjoy the book, which I did, but because we need her right where she is. She’s the kind of educator and example any parent would be thrilled to have in front of a child.