CHICAGO -- Sarah Wu does not look like a troublemaker. The slight, blond mom comes off, by her own admission, as "a super nice person ... without a bad word to say."
That may be why the speech pathologist was able to crank out an incisive daily blog scrutinizing school meals for an entire year without anyone suspecting her. Writing as "Mrs. Q," she bought lunch each school day of 2010, photographed it, ate it and wrote about it that night under the title Fed Up With Lunch.
One early post noted: "Oftentimes what is served barely passes muster as something edible." A few days later: "I want less pre-fab food and higher quality options. Less crap, you know?" A lasagna lunch drew this review: "Wow. Truly monumentally bad. I couldn't get through the main entree. I was hungry too."
The blog quickly became a minor sensation, but its writer fiercely guarded her anonymity, fearing termination from the Chicago Public Schools, where she was employed.
Only on Wednesday, when Wu was to appear on "Good Morning America," would anyone at her former Northwest Side school -- or CPS for that matter -- know that this quiet teacher is actually Mrs. Q, school lunch crusader and author of a new book also called "Fed Up With Lunch."
Speaking to the Chicago Tribune at her dining room table last week, Wu said the project was born after she forgot her lunch one day, bought the school lunch instead and started worrying about its effect on students.
Soon she was writing thoughtful, often funny blog entries about the surprising parade of plastic-wrapped, processed foods that appeared on her tray each day -- from bagel dogs, popcorn chicken and Salisbury steak to green gelatin, peanut butter and jelly bars and blue raspberry ice pops.
Glib and confident online, Wu came off as thoughtful and soft spoken in person. She also seemed anxious about how her friends, extended family and former colleagues at Haugan Elementary -- she's teaching at other CPS schools this year -- would feel about her yearlong secret.
"I spent a lot of time worrying about that," said Wu, 34. "I lived with a lot of inner turmoil, thinking, 'What did I do? This was stupid.' ... But I had to hold it all in."
With a toddler (Charlie, now 3) and a full-time job, Wu initially questioned the wisdom of launching the project, as did her husband, Mike. But she convinced herself she would only spend five minutes a day on the blog and few people would even see it.
"Then at least I would have made a public record of these lunches that bothered me so much," Wu said. "Maybe nobody would find it, but at least I would have done something to state my opinion and it would be out there and that would be that."
But that wasn't that. Within two weeks, one of the most influential voices in American nutrition -- author and New York University professor Marion Nestle -- found Fed Up With Lunch and reported on her Food Politics blog that "an intrepid school teacher, Mrs. Q, has vowed to eat school lunches every day for a year. ... Will she survive? I can't wait to find out."
What followed was an explosion of readers and appearance requests from "Good Morning America," National Public Radio and national conferences. British chef Jamie Oliver, who had just launched his "Food Revolution" television show, called to offer encouragement. Fearing too much exposure, Wu finally stopped accepting requests.
Several readers shared Nestle's concern for Wu's survival, but survive she did. While the year brought plenty of stomach trouble, Wu says she ended up maintaining her weight and even dropped 20 points from her cholesterol six months in.
While Fed Up With Lunch takes a stark and often critical look at the school food -- in her case, served by a CPS caterer called Preferred Meals Systems -- Wu offers generous props to lunchroom managers, cooks and others who must prepare thousands of hot meals for often-choosy customers each day.
She even posted an interview on her site with Bob Bloomer, who oversees the main CPS lunch contract won by Chartwells-Thompson. Other features have included guest bloggers and essays on obesity, celiac disease, milk and lunches around the world, with a lively stream of comments trailing each post.
Her book expands on these themes while offering more material about her relationship with food and the fear and craziness that unfolded behind the scenes as the blog took on a life of its own -- attracting sometimes 4,000 hits a day. She's also penned a chapter on how citizens can work to improve school food in their communities.
Although the school lunch experiment is well behind her, Wu continues to blog on food policy, school issues and personal health. She also still features regular posts and photos of the lunches she eats each day at school. Only these days, she happily serves as her own lunch lady.
STATS FROM A YEAR OF SCHOOL LUNCH
Number of meals consumed: 162
Cost of each meal: $3
Number of chicken nuggets consumed: 133
Cholesterol change six months after starting project: 20 points down
Weight change by project's end: None. "This may have been because I was eating 'kid sized' lunches," she said.
Best lunch: Tex Mex bowl. "It's a bowl with rice, turkey meat and cheese with side of tortilla chips and beans."
Worst lunch: Cheese lasagna. "It didn't even pass muster as pasta! ... The pasta couldn't hold its form and it crumbled. I ate two bites and I was done. Yuck."
THOUGHTS FROM MRS. Q ON IMPROVING SCHOOL LUNCH
More time and recess: "Twenty minutes is not enough, and they are getting between nine and 13 minutes to actually eat (in CPS). And if they are at a no-recess school then they are getting no opportunities to socialize. If you are just in school and then you go to lunch and go back to your classroom, where's your chance to talk to friends? A lot of kids really prioritize the socialization. They just want to talk. They want to scream. And so maybe they just drink the chocolate milk and throw the rest away. ... And, yes, I do support a longer school day for this."
Remove processed foods: "I wouldn't mind if they offered pizza every week if it was not full of ingredients that nobody can pronounce. ... We have to reduce the ingredients we are putting into these things because I don't think we know exactly what all of these things are doing to children's bodies when we give them such processed foods."
Nutrition education: "As a special educator I would like to see nutrition education that is much more hands on. They can't just be put in a chair and told to learn something. ... If they could get hands-on instruction or get down in the cafeteria and learning how these things work, they would love it."
Salad bars: "I'd love to see a salad bar in every school. They're so interactive because kids can choose. Maybe they won't try something green on the first day, but maybe the next day they'll see a friend trying it. Plus, there is so much more variety. And since it's not dictated to them it gives them a little bit of power. It's not just plopped down on their tray."
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