Going Undercover in a School Cafeteria

Anonymous teacher blogs about the processed junk being served to our kids

You might not know Mrs. Q, but she knows you.
She teaches your children at school. She praises them when they answer a question correctly and encourages them when they make mistakes. She breaks up scuffles and brings sick tummies to the nurse. She writes your child’s report cards and meets with you for parent-teacher conferences.

Starting January 1, 2010, she took her dedication one step further and began eating the same lunches they eat.  Why? Because someone needs to raise awareness about what, exactly, American children are being served in the school cafeteria every day.  Inspired by an unpalatable bagel dog she was forced to munch on when she forgot to pack her own lunch one day, the 30-something Mrs. Q (not her real name) made a New Year’s resolution to cell phone blog every meal live from Cafeteria A, somewhere in the Midwest (OK, Illinois, but she won’t get any more specific than that.) “That bagel dog was particularly bad. I thought, ‘I don’t want to eat this – I can’t believe we expect kids to eat this and then go back to class and focus on what they’re teacher is saying.’”

In March alone, Mrs. Q downed 17 school lunches: Four pizza slices, three “burger-like” meals, three chicken entrees, two chilis, one hot dog, one pasta dish, one cheese croissant, one cheese lasagna and a mac n cheese for good luck (all alongside seven fruit cups, six servings of carrots, two each of pears, bananas, beans, oranges, green beans and fruit Jello and a serving each of tater tots (they count as a veggie!), corn, broccoli and a fruit icy (considered a fruit!)

Her blog, Fed Up With Lunch: The School Lunch Project,  has blown up recently, thanks to a Good Morning America spot and a bevy of other media interviews (her face and voice are always obscured). Recent posts include a “meatloaf and mystery greens” entrée that was so malformed, she posted a pic and asked her readers to help ID the foods; an uber-boring Day 55 beige-and-yellow menu consisting of chicken nuggets, carrots, a corn muffin, fruit Jello and milk (“I can't remember how this meal tasted. Even just a couple hours after I consumed it, I have no idea what flavors were present. When I ask my students ‘What did you think of your lunch?’ they give me a blank stare. Now I get it.”)  and a guest post by an American teaching ESL in South Korea who described that school lunches there always include rice, soup, meat, vegetable, kimchi, and sometimes fruit.  She graciously agreed to take out from her full-time elementary school teaching job, blogging and motherhood to speak with Never Say Diet and answer some questions. Here are the Qs we asked Mrs. Q:

How are today’s school lunches different from what you ate as a child?
I really can’t believe how strange some of these lunches are. I wanted to show the world what our kids were eating because these were nothing like what I ate in elementary school. We used to have pizza just baked and served off those massive metal sheets or grilled cheese sandwiches - my favorite, because they came with a bowl of hot tomato soup – but what these kids are eating, it seems like the quality had gotten worse. There’s all of this packaging and no cooking really goes on. It’s all just heated up in large ovens. How did we outsource the making of a PB & J to a company? Why can’t we spread the peanut butter on a piece of bread ourselves?

Why do this now?
This issue is important now because the Child Nutrition Act is being reauthorized and debated in Congress right now. I realize that everyone is strapped for cash right now. Individuals, companies, states, and countries are losing money. No matter what is going on in this world, we can't forget the kids and the fact that many of them are at the mercy of school districts and corporations for their daily meal(s). It will cost the US more money in the future [in the form of healthcare costs] if schools don't address the big problem that is staring them in the face every day: childhood obesity. No matter how great a school is, it can't control what the kids eat outside of school. But still schools can do better for kids while they are in the building.

What has been the worst meal you’ve tried?
There were two meals I did not like at all. One was a prepackaged peanut butter and jelly on this sort of thick cracker sandwich. I actually threw up that night when I got home. But that day, I’d been paranoid about eating so many school lunches so I had taken a vitamin on an empty stomach, and that may have done it. The other was a lasagna that came in this little container, but it didn’t have any form. It sort of came apart, was clumpy. That was one of the meals I could barely eat.

How about any favorites?
I’m really into comfort food, and we like to make pasta at home, so the pasta dishes have been good for me. Even the meaty sauces haven’t been too bad (Mrs. Q doesn’t typically eat red meat aside from this project). They also have a chili dish that was actually quite good.

Do you get any fruits and veggies?
The schools have to offer a cup and a fourth of veggies – carrots, corns, beans, peas, broccoli. They’re steamed and sometimes overcooked. Tater tots and fries count as a vegetable, because they’re potatoes. And they always have to offer a fruit. Unfortunately, a fruit cup or a fruit Jello counts as fruit, or these icy fruit bars. These kids, when they get their lunch, they just eat that. They don’t have enough time to focus on all the food and just eat that because it’s most appealing.

Have you noticed any health changes since you started?
I had cut out a lot of milk from my diet last year because it was causing me a little GI upset. I’d have some milk with breakfast, but that was it. With this project, I started drinking this whole pint of milk every day and was uncomfortable, and made the connection that I’m lactose intolerant.

I had a blood test done in December for health insurance purposes. I’m going have it redone at the end of the school year. As far as weight, I was into the project so I was eating all the food. Gained a pound that first month but since then have lost 3 pounds. So I haven’t gained any weight. I think the portion control of the lunch is helping – it’s like a calorie restricted diet.

I do find myself fading mid- to late-afternoon at work and I'm pretty hungry by 3:30 pm. I keep snacks in my car that I nibble on while driving home. I eat almonds, walnuts, and cashews as well as granola bars. The nuts give me protein to fill me up and balance out my blood sugar so that I can make it to dinner.

What do you like to eat when you go out?
All kinds of Japanese food – sushi, teriyaki, miso soup, eel. And at home, as a working mom, I’m just doing the best I can to get something healthy on the table: Tacos, pasta, we just had black rice from the Asian food store yesterday, fish. I don’t eat any beef, and this project is really beef-heavy – hamburgers, meat pasta sauce, Salisbury steak. I’ve eaten more beef in the past three months than in the past two years. 

Do you remember what you ate in school? Was it healthy? Do you know what your kids are being served now? Chime in below.

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