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Mrs Q of Fed Up with Lunch on How Parents Can Change School Lunch

Blogging anonymously as “Mrs. Q,” a teacher and mom of a toddler from Illinois, Sarah Wu pledged to eat school lunch every school day in 2010, just like her students. Using her cell phone camera to covertly snap pictures of the meals, she blogged and tweeted about the good, the bad, and the downright inedible, in the process raising awareness about the state of school lunches across the nation. On Wednesday, she revealed her true identity to the world on “Good Morning America” as her book, Fed Up With Lunch: How One Anonymous Teacher Revealed the Truth About School Lunches, hit store shelves.

Wu shared the story behind just how she got started on this project and her Fed Up with Lunch blog as well as some of her all-time best and worst school lunches in her first two guest posts here on Mom Congress. Today, she shares practical advice for parents interested in improving school food for their own kids.

I have never been the kind of person comfortable with conflict and confrontation. When I decided to eat and blog my way through a year of school lunch, I decided that doing it anonymously made the most sense. I wanted to show the world what my students were eating, but I needed it to be a silent protest so that I could remain employed. 

A lot of parents get annoyed and irked by what happens at school, but they feel like I do: they don't want to be confrontational because they fear being labeled a certain way (the "b" word) or they worry about repercussions for their children at school. Sometimes parents don't even know whom they should talk to when trying to create change at school.

For parents interested in effecting change in their children’s school, here's where I would start with school lunch reform:

1) Have lunch with your child at school. There's no better way to know what's happening that to be there. While you are there, try to answer the following questions:

  • How many lunch periods are there?
  • Is there enough time to eat?
  • How does the lunch line move?
  • What foods are offered?
  • Is the food prepared and managed by a corporation?
  • How much cooking happens onsite?
  • Do the children have choices?
  • How much does a "full pay" lunch cost?
  • How much waste is there?
  • Do the kids get recess and if so is it before or after lunch?
  • What about other food at school? Is there an "a la carte" option or candy fundraisers?

Once you have a good idea about the food environment at school beyond reading the menu, you can start thinking about what changes could be made and who would need to be involved to help make those changes.

2) Get parents working together. Parent involvement changes schools for the better. Approach other concerned parents in your network, your child's teacher, or the PTA with your concerns about the school food environment. It's best to gauge interest right from the start, as you will need some serious support. Think about founding a School Wellness Committee to tackle nutrition and wellness in the building; it could address school lunch, food-related fundraisers, vending machines, recess and physical education—which all impact the health of students. 

3) Brainstorm ideas and solutions. Put every stakeholder in a room and start thinking about what needs to happen to create the desired result. To lengthen the lunch period does the school day need to be longer—who can work on changing that? The principal? The school district? Consider costs and possible funding sources. For example, if a goal is to acquire a salad bar, get a price quote and think about community organizations, like a local hospital, that could sponsor its cost. Create an action plan with short- and long-term goals. Detail the people who need to be involved to make change as well as those who will monitor progress. 

4) Approach someone in power. Every school district and even each individual school's administration is different. In some schools it makes sense for the PTA or other parent group to approach a principal about starting a wellness committee, but in other schools the teachers might have a better relationship with those in power. Starting the conversation at school with other parents, teachers, and the principal is an accomplishment. 

If changing a school’s food seems like a daunting task for the first year tackling school wellness issues, consider smaller goals like eliminating food-based fundraisers or setting up a Wellness Night, which may be under more local school control. Keep in mind that work towards these goals will take time. Start out with small steps and celebrate every success. 

Check out Fed Up With Lunch: How One Anonymous Teacher Revealed the Truth About School Lunches and get started on your own school lunch revolution!