Twenty years ago, I was waking up early to type, just like I am this morning.
As early as third grade, my best friend and I wrote and published a “newspaper” for our class, reporting on such scintillating and crucial stories as who was sliding on the ice at recess (complete with illustrations…never a talent of mine, unfortunately!), the size of the new buses the district purchased, and brain teaser games that we wrote ourselves.
I still have a strong memory of getting up at 5:00 in the morning – once – to push out our newspaper on a self-set “deadline,” punching the keys on an ancient typewriter – ancient even then in the mid 1980s, the kind where each keystroke took all my 60-pound bodyweight, the return was via manual lever complete with “ding!”, and each mistake required correction tape to be inserted as the deviant letter was retyped in white. Does anyone even know what correction tape is anymore? That’s one old typewriter…
In sixth grade, then, when some dedicated teacher began an official school newspaper, it was a shoe-in that the two of us would apply. The best story I remember from that year was about school lunch and the waste it generated. I had always had a green consciousness, at least from the time I received 50 Simple Things Kids can do to Save the Earth in fourth or fifth grade.
My friend and I studied lunchtime waste every day for a week, standing by the garbage cans in the cafeteria (our gymnasium with tables) and instructing fellow students to separate their waste into different receptacles for food, liquid, and trash. We weighed the results each day and posted a graph as part of our article. Pizza spins generated the least food waste; and something very forgettable that clearly no one liked, the most.
The final day of the project, we got to spend the entire morning shadowing the elementary school cooks. They made all the rolls and brownies from scratch and served a fairly balanced meal on reusable melamine trays. We even got to help serve lunch to the school, and we were amazed at how much work massive quantity cooking can be. I’m guessing after that I stopped making fun of the way the rolls went back to dough when you squished a piece between your fingers.
What I learned that week is beginning to haunt me as I read Sarah Wu’s Fed Up With Lunch, not because we thought our meals were so terrible in school, but mostly because today’s children have it so very much worse.
One Teacher, One Incredible Brainstorm
She decided to just grab school lunch, a disturbing experience that launched a project in which she ate school lunch every day for the entirety of 2010, took pictures of the food, and blogged about it each night at FedUpWithLunch.com, using the alias “Mrs. Q.”
The book of the same name, published last fall, has been such a fun read for me.
I admit, I think I loved it most of all because I’m a blogger, and reading about a blogger doing the blogging thing and seeking balance and dealing with comments and all that stuff that I do too (that no one else in real life understands) was like a guilty pleasure. Besides that, I met Sarah last January in person, so it was like reading an old friend’s story.
She details the behind-the-scenes story of the project and the blog, from that first fateful, cardboard-esque bite, to deciding to blog, to her jitters about being interviewed on national television while she was still anonymous online. Readers are invited into her home to experience family life with her husband and young son, exploring food sensitivities in little Charlie and watching Sarah’s husband learn to cook with amazing passion.
I learned some shocking facts via Fed Up With Lunch:
- Most kids in America have less than 20 minutes for lunch, including lining up time and getting back to the classroom. This translates in reality into about 10 minutes sitting at the table. Our family never gets a meal in our bellies in less than half an hour…
- Chicago Public Schools serves everything in individually packaged portions.
- First graders can’t open the packages, so they have to spend some of their precious 10 minutes waiting for a cafeteria “lunch lady” to come around with a spork and pierce all the plastic coverings.
- Fruit “Icee” popsicle thingys count as a serving of fruit as far as the USDA is concerned. They are made of water, high fructose corn syrup, a bit of apple juice, fake flavorings, and artificial food coloring. Most kids eat this first, prioritizing their 10 minutes.
- Most kids also down their chocolate milk laced with HFCS, quite often at the expense of the rest of the meal.
- The USDA is in charge of school lunch, completely separate from the Department of Education. Apparently, food is not something to learn about. (Sarah Wu and I think it should be part of the curriculum.)
- When kids have recess before lunch instead of after, a study showed that “less food goes to waste and students end up eating more of the healthful offerings on their lunch trays, such as fruit and veggies. Additionally, nurse visits drop 40 percent.” Guess when my child goes outside to play? It’s one of the things on my mental list that I want to advocate about…
- CPS offers no recess time to any child.
- Yes, you read that right. No recess. Even in early elementary.
- There are schools being built in our nation with zero playgrounds. Those kids, obviously, will not get recess either.
- Yes, you read that right. I am in shock as well. What will that do to kids’ social development, not to mention their physical fitness, ability to concentrate in school, and their waistlines???
Sarah has become a passionate school food advocate, something this introverted young mom never would have predicted two years ago before starting the project. The end of the book gives lots of advice on how to work for positive change in the school food agenda, starting with parents.
Her advice is to begin by observing: join your child for lunch at school and see what the situation is in your community. I encourage you to do the same.
The only thing I might pick on about the book is that it seemed repetitive. Some of the facts about chocolate milk, time to eat, and food quality were brought up again and again, and because the chronology was linear through the school year, many subjects were revisited.
Perhaps Sarah Wu was simply relying on her teaching knowledge, knowing that people need repetition to really learn, but I started getting just a wee bit “fed up” when I encountered certain subjects for the fifth or sixth time. (Check out Sarah’s top 5 way parents can improve school lunch – you get a good summary of the book’s meat here.)
The anecdotes, research quotes, and news stories about school lunch, however, “filled me up” and got me fired up to study school lunch in our community to see what we can do to clean it up. (I’m sharing some of my thoughts on my goals in a separate post.) The book is an incredibly enjoyable and very enlightening read.
The Fed Up with Lunch project changed Sarah’s life for the better, and I have no doubt that reading her book will change yours, if only for a day.
My hope, and Sarah’s as well, is that if you read about the status of school lunch today, you will be inspired to be an agent of change. She and I want to challenge you to be a school food advocate – to follow in her footsteps and the footsteps of Jamie Oliver and his Food Revolutions (sign the petition!).
Study your child’s school lunch program and see what you can do to enact positive change in the menu offered, the time allowed to eat, and the general conversation about food and nutrition in your district.
What is your school lunch like? What would you change if you could? What do you love about it?
UPDATE: My follow up thoughts on fixing school lunch…
I’ve been gabbing about school food this week. Did you miss:
- Juice makes you pee your pants (and other reasons not to drink it)
- Free printable: Juice Decoder
- The Dangers of Artificial Sweeteners: Are they Safe for Kids?
- My 6-year-old, the Green Activist (Juice Pouch Recycling)
- My experience with school health class and “healthy” snacks
If you missed the last Monday Mission, click here.
Disclosure: I received a copy of FUWL at no charge for my review, and I’m friends/colleagues with Sarah Wu, but no one can pay for my opinion! I’m also an affiliate with Amazon and will make a small commission if you end up buying anything there…but check the library first, please! See my full disclosure statement here.