Blame it on the bagel dog.If not for that sad excuse for an entree, the blogger known as Mrs. Q might never have gotten so disgusted with school lunches that she decided to show the world how bad they are. She never would have eaten, photographed and blogged about 160 elementary-school lunches — one per school day for the past year. She never would have attracted the attention of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and food activist Marian Nestle.
And Mrs. Q (who hides her identity to protect her job) might have gone on thinking that school lunch is “just food.” Instead, she told TODAYshow.com, “I have learned that food is personal, food is life, food is health.”
She has eaten more Salisbury steak and chicken nuggets than any adult should have to endure — and chronicled the culinary highs and lows on her blog, Fed Up With School Lunch. Her experience has pushed her into the spotlight, made her an activist, and totally transformed the way her family eats.The fatal bagel dog
But back to that bagel dog: Mrs. Q, who works at a Chicago-area public school, forgot her lunch one day, so she bought the bagel dog at the cafeteria. She figured: How bad can it be?
Turns out: Really bad.“It was this massive amount of dough covering a hot dog, plus tater tots and a fruit cup. And I thought, ‘This is it?’ ” Mrs. Q recalled.
She looked at her students, most of whom rely on government-subsidized free lunches at school. The bagel dog that turned her stomach would be, for many, the best meal of their day.
That December, she got the idea for the blog. Her husband told her she was crazy; they have a young son who seemed to be constantly sick, and the last thing she needed to add to her plate was a daily food blog.Mrs. Q agreed — and yet, she couldn’t shake the idea.
“I thought, someone needs to know about this,” she told TODAYshow.com. “You know when you have a thought and it just simmers in your head?”The year of eating dangerously
So on the first day of school last January, she made her way to the cafeteria with the kids. Since that day, her commitment to eat lunch there every day has been tested by the prepackaged peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich that literally made her sick; by the monotony of processed, spongy meat patties; and by fears of being found out and losing her job.Mrs. Q had blogged before — a personal blog that was read by an audience of two: her mom and her sister. But two weeks after she started the lunch blog, a mention by famed food writer and activist Marion Nestle prompted her traffic to soar into the hundreds, and then the thousands. “That was really, really terrifying,” she said.But she stuck with the blog. Day after day, patty after patty, she ate and she blogged, and began to find her voice: Her initial just-the-facts descriptions of gross meals evolved into funny stories about the kids at school and personal musings about food. She learned to drink the juice from the bottom of her fruit cup, just as the kids did. She learned to love cafeteria pizza; then she got sick of it; then she loved it again.
Her blog readers followed along raptly. And then one called her the poster child for school lunch reform.Mrs. Q hadn’t even realized there was a school lunch reform movement: She describes herself as a don’t-rock-the-boat, follow-the-rules kind of person. But her experiment was causing her to question the rules of school lunches: What is in these chicken nuggets, anyway? Why serve chocolate milk instead of regular milk? Why don’t kids get more time to eat? Is a certain student’s short attention span due to poor nutrition?Slowly but surely, she came to believe she had a moral imperative to try to make school lunches better.
“I’ve turned into a person I wouldn’t have recognized a year ago,” she said. “It has really made me think that food is so vital to kids. I don’t think people realize how important the school lunch is to these children.”Food for thought
Mrs. Q’s blog benefited from good political timing: School lunches have been in the spotlight as Congress debated reauthorizing the Child Nutrition Act. The law, signed by President Obama on Monday, will add 6 cents to school lunch reimbursements and will expand eligibility for free and reduced-price lunches for kids — not as much as lunch-reform supporters hoped for, but still hailed as a victory by many in the movement.
Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University and author of “What To Eat,” was pleasantly surprised this week to hear that Mrs. Q had stuck with her school lunch blog.“Good for her,” Nestle told TODAYshow.com. “I thought she was courageous to take this on.” However, she added, “If this is what it takes to convince people that food has something to do with health or even feeling better, we nutritionists have our work cut out.”Mrs. Q almost didn’t do the lunch blog because of concerns it would take too much time away from her son, now 2, who suffered from chronic ear infections and colds when she started the project. But, ironically, he’s been the one to benefit most. As she wrote and thought more about food, and communicated with commenters on her blog, she realized her son’s health problems might be related to what he was eating. She cut out gluten and dairy from his diet, and his health improved dramatically.
“I wouldn’t have made those connections if I had not done this blog. I’ve seen a complete change in my son,” she said.
She and her husband are eating differently, too: “I would never have thought of feeding my family quinoa. It sounded too hippie. Now I like it.”Mrs. Q is eagerly looking forward to bringing her lunch from home when school starts up again — she says she’ll never eat another chicken nugget in her life. But she does plan to keep blogging.
After a year of school lunches, it seems, both she and her audience are still hungry for more.