HSC’s Perspective: Mrs. Q and School Food in Chicago and Beyond

October 11, 2011

by Rochelle Davis, President and CEO

The school food world was abuzz last week with the news that Mrs. Q, the previously anonymous teacher who ate school lunch every day for one year and blogged about it at Fed Up with Lunch, has revealed herself as Sarah Wu, a speech pathologist in Chicago Public Schools. She has released a book about her experience and is conducting media interviews to discuss her work and her new book.

Because HSC worked closely with Chicago Public Schools (CPS) on making changes to their school meal program, I’d like to share our perspective on Mrs. Q’s work. We’ve followed Mrs. Q’s efforts from the beginning, re-posting some of her early reflections on school funding and her reaction to breakfast in the classroom.

First of all, I’ve been impressed by Mrs. Q’s efforts to raise awareness of why and how much healthy school food matters. She discusses the importance of school food and physical activity to student health and shares her observations as a teacher about how food and fitness have an impact on learning.

Her observations and personal reflections also speak poignantly to school food as a social justice issue: she points out how healthy school food is especially important to the students she serves, who come to school at increased risk of both hunger and obesity.

Since beginning her blog in January 2010, Mrs. Q posted a photo of her lunch with a brief description almost every day. Though she discusses her personal preferences (including a love of “comfort food” casseroles), much of her commentary focuses on how processed the food is and how this is a result of systems beyond her specific school. She praises the food service staff at her school and their effort to provide the best food possible with extremely limited resources.

The time period she covers in her blog and book — January through December 2010 — includes the launch of the new school food program in CPS. In the fall of 2010, Mrs. Q reported that she began noticing changes to the food at her school. She comments on her pleasant surprise at receiving fresh broccoli, for example, and whole fruit. In recent interviews, she mentioned that she has noticed continued improvements since she stopped eating daily school lunch last year.

HSC supported the district in developing the new nutrition standards for this program and has closely followed its implementation. With this new program, the school food at CPS meets the nutrition guidelines of the gold standard of the HealthierUS School Challenge.

Specifically, the meals now have more (and more variety of) fruits and vegetables; more whole grains; lower sodium; and even a preference for locally-grown produce. (CPS actually has one of the largest farm-to-school program I’m aware of, bringing more than $2 million worth of regionally-grown fruit and vegetables to school cafeterias in the last year.)

I’m particularly encouraged, though, by the changes to school food in CPS that aren’t as easily described in quick bullet points. One of the main concerns Mrs. Q emphasizes is that the food served in schools today seems removed from the type of food many of us would prepare at home. As she explains, this is a result of many factors — including inadequate funding and lack of kitchen facilities for cooking — that result in more processed food being served in schools. I believe the changes we see in the works at CPS will move the district even further in the right direction with regard to this issue. 

Mrs. Q also speaks highly of breakfast in the classroom, a program that CPS brought to all elementary schools this year. HSC has championed this program as a way to support student health and learning. (To learn more, check out HSC’s site BreakfastMatters.org.)  Mrs. Q describes it as an easy and effective way to get healthy food to kids who need it and notes that it starts the day on a positive note for students and teachers.

That said, Mrs. Q also highlights many problems in the school food she eats; much of the recent media coverage has focused on the meals that she described with shock or dismay.

The reality is that CPS school food — even the new program with so many healthy changes — exists within the broader context of a national system that presents many challenges to serving fresh, healthy meals at school. Mrs. Q discusses many of the challenges that HSC recognizes in our advocacy work for better school food. These include the need for more money for better school food, schools’ lack of infrastructure for cooking and lack of funding to improve kitchen facilities,the fact that many students do not have enough time for lunch, and the need to bring back recess.

    No matter how much progress the leaders at any one school or district make to improve school food, these factors pose very real challenges to the types of broad changes we’d all like to see for lunch at school.

    We commend Mrs. Q for drawing attention to these system-level challenges and hope that her work will engage more teachers, parents and advocates across the nation in the effort to create a new future for school food.