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She ate 162 school lunches -- and blogged it

By Madison Park, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Anonymous woman ate school lunch throughout 2010 and blogged about it
  • "Mrs. Q" said she wanted to show the state of school lunches
  • School nutrition association said low quality of lunch is very rare

(CNN) -- After a year of eating school lunches, Mrs. Q survived to blog about it.

She works at an urban school in the Midwest, where she ate bagel dogs (yes, that's an entree), yellowish meatloaf and chicken tenders, which she likened to "squirts of chicken foam."

With spork in hand, her mission was to chronicle the $3 school lunches on her blog, Fed Up With Lunch. Every afternoon, Mrs. Q -- who asked to remain anonymous out of concern for her job -- photographed the lumps on her orange school lunch tray, and shared her observations about the food and how it affected students.

The blog gained a substantial following and stirred conversations about what should be on kids' trays. Mrs. Q announced on her blog late Thursday that she will reveal her identity later this year when she publishes a book about the project.

"I just wanted to make a public record of what my students ate," Mrs. Q said during an interview. "It's not to target anybody. The lunchroom manager, the ladies and men who are in the cafeteria, they care about the students and what's the best for them in their lives. They don't have power of controlling their menus. They're just doing their jobs."

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Aside from mystery meat and puddles of beans, school lunch wasn't always bad. On day 29, she remarked, "Weirdly, this is the first time I thought the pizza was fantastic!"

Mrs. Q said her blog represents what school children who rely on reduced-price or free meals are fed every day.

But the School Nutrition Association disputes that notion.

"I really think what Mrs. Q showed was in a great, great, great minority," said Helen Phillips, president-elect of the association. "The media picks up on those stories because it plays into a stereotype of school meals."

Not all inner-city school districts serve poor quality meals, she said.

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Phillips oversees the Norfolk Public Schools' nutrition department in Virginia, which has about 63% free and reduced price lunches. Her school district serves fresh produce such as zucchini sticks, kiwis, plums, pears, pineapples and grapes.

"It's not the reality of school meals. Long before laws tell us we have to, school nutrition directors are working to improve school meals," Phillips said. "We love feeding kids and want to see them eat the best they can."

This month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released new proposals to improve school breakfast and lunch nutrition standards as part of an attempt to reduce childhood obesity. It proposed cutting down on school lunch staples often spotted on Mrs. Q's blog, such as pizza and French fries.

The USDA proposes increasing fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat milk while cutting the amount of sodium and saturated fat and limiting the number of calories.

"I really do believe we need to upgrade school lunch food," Mrs. Q said. "I think it affects performance in a big way."

In January 2010, when she kicked off the blog, she was upbeat and ready to chow down. Outside the cafeteria, Mrs. Q maintains a diet low in dairy and gluten.

She found the school food revolting, but her students hardly complained about the meals.

For many of them, it's their favorite meal of the day -- especially hot dogs, chicken nuggets and pizza. Ninety five percent of the kids at her school receive free or reduced-price meals, Mrs. Q estimated.

Critics have argued her blog reads like a Whole Foods shopper judging the convenience foods purchased by people with less money. Mrs. Q has been accused of being a "snobby suburban mom" and bringing a socio-economic bias to the blog.

I believe just because they come from families that don't have money, it doesn't mean they shouldn't have access to good food, too.
--Mrs. Q, blogger

"It may come off as classist to say this food sucks," Mrs. Q said. "What I'm trying to say is that all people deserve good food. It's actually not classist. I believe in the potential of my students. I believe just because they come from families that don't have money, it doesn't mean they shouldn't have access to good food, too."

She added: "To call someone who works in public education as classist or a snobby suburban mom, that's funny. If I was a real snob, why would I be doing this with my life?"

Mrs. Q noticed that kids only had 20 minutes to eat their lunches, so they'd automatically eat the sweet snacks first. They pounced on red-colored flavored ice, which Mrs. Q believed affected their behaviors in class.

"They would space out afterwards," Mrs. Q said. "I knew kids who had the ice, and they had the red all over their food and mouth."

Some school districts struggle to provide healthy and appealing meals because the programs lose money.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which gave the government more authority to set standards for food sold at school, could help by increasing the reimbursement for school meals.

The federal reimbursement rate is about $2.72 per meal. Usually, when the cost of food and labor are added, the meals cost about $3 each, leading to financial shortfalls.

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"Certainly, there are budget constraints across the country," Phillips said.

After a year of eating cafeteria lunches, Mrs. Q's health hasn't changed substantially, a fact she attributes to her healthy diet outside of school. Her blood tests showed lower cholesterol and higher blood sugar, all within the normal range. She didn't gain any weight but recalled discomfort and stomach aches from several meals.

But the momentum to improve school lunches is growing, even in Mrs. Q's school. Fresh salads with iceberg lettuce and dark greens showed up on her plate.

"They started to do changes in the fall," said Mrs. Q, who continued her experiment during two school years. "Occasionally, when they serve fries, they were leaving the skin on, so there was less processing. They were doing some fresh veggies, so they were doing raw broccoli in a little bag.

"They started offering an apple, pear or orange -- not every day. They started adding grapes in a little bag, which was a step in the right direction. There were changes that I saw. People are starting to think about choices, and I'm encouraged."

But, French fries and pizzas are still on the menu.

In 2011, Mrs. Q has yet to touch a school lunch.

 
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