Monday, January 31, 2011

Interview with Mrs. Q

Organic School Project had a chance to interview Mrs. Q. If you don't already know who Mrs. Q is and didn't hear about her on CNN, she is a teacher who ate school lunch for a year and blogged about it.

Mrs. Q: Fed up with School Lunch – Interview Questions

1. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and what your connections to school lunches or school children are?

I am an educator who works with students in public school. I never had any special connection with school lunches until I got it in my head to eat them for a year.

2. Can you tell me about your school lunch project and why did you want to do this in the first place?

I saw the lunches in the cafeteria only in passing for a few years. They didn’t look too great, but at the time I was new and didn’t want to make waves. Plus, the average teacher doesn’t go into the cafeteria that often to critique the food. It wasn’t until I ate a couple lunches myself in the fall of 2009 (because I was running late to work and didn’t have the time to pack), when I thought more deeply about the food that the students were consuming. I worried that my students’ best chance for healthy, real food was at school, and for a real education about good food and nutrition, was being missed. Part of why I started caring more was that I had a one-year-old who was making that scary transition to real food. I started to examine my relationship with food and it extended to what I saw around me and at work.

3. How do you feel about the project ending on December 17, 2010?

I can’t believe it’s over. I’m shocked I did it physically, but I can’t believe I wasn’t found out and was able to finish the project. I really assumed that I would have been discovered by June. I’m only guessing here, but I guess no one thought it was me.

4. Did you see any improvement over the year and what have you learned from it?

The strange beauty of doing the project over a calendar year was that I was able to see if there were any changes to the menu between school years. I’m happy to report that there were changes. First, in the fall they offered more fresh, raw vegetables including an iceberg salad mix on some days and on other there was packages of broccoli. The same frozen and then reheated vegetables were served too, but the small changes were encouraging.

Additionally, when a plastic tray wasn’t available, they changed from Styrofoam to paper trays. It was really terrific to see that someone was thinking about waste.

5. Did the project affect your personally in any way (health, etc.)?

I avoided fast food and ate lots of veggies prior to eating and blogging school lunch, but looking back, now I know that my Food IQ still was quite low. Although I didn’t ever want to discuss it on the blog, I ended up having to bring up that I have a diagnosis of IBS. It was super na├»ve of me to think that eating school lunches for a year wouldn’t bother my sensitive system.

Right away, I noticed that drinking a pint of milk at lunch was giving my tummy troubles. At home, I just didn’t drink that much milk and so that’s how I discovered I was lactose-intolerant in January.

Many of those food discoveries actually benefited my son. We both went dairy-free (for me it was only outside of school) in September and gluten-free in October. School lunches are heavily wheat and dairy based, but even removing some gluten and dairy from my diet helped me. It wasn’t a boutique diet trying to be trendy. My son had chronic diarrhea and with my IBS, I continued to question if something in our diet was bothering us. Well, I’m happy to report that my son is doing terrific now. It was wonderful to see how quickly his body responded to the change in diet. It hasn’t been quite as quick for me – it seems like my tummy is still upset after everything I ate last year! I’ve also been diagnosed with a Vitamin D deficiency so I’m treating that.

6. How do you think people will be inspired by and learn from your project of eating cafeteria food for a year?

There are a few things that I want people to take away from the project. First, I want them to believe that one person can do something. I didn’t do very much, but what I did to raise awareness is really spectacular. I want people to believe in their crazy ideas and go for it.

I’d also like to encourage people to be critical thinkers about food in their environment and question assumptions. It’s ok to speak up.

7. What’s your next step to help improve school lunch after the school lunch project?
I’m doing what I can in my own school to start a wellness committee. It’s an uphill battle. Additionally, I will be revealing myself later in the year. I can’t wait to finally take the veil off. Being anonymous is safe but also burdensome because it’s a lot to carry around. I don’t like keeping secrets and this one is a whopper.

8. How do you think schools and parents can do better in improving school lunch system as well as educating the children? What are your suggestions?
The issue of school lunch is so complex. I think it goes back to valuing the meal. What is more important than food in our lives? We have lost that connection and we have forgotten our place in the food change, and treating food with respect. I sound like a hippie, but our roles as eaters are part of our ecosystem. Right now our food system is broken and to create change we all have to be active, aware consumers, even our kids.
The way that school lunch is structured is a huge missed opportunity. Kids get little to no nutrition training, they get no time to physically eat, they are given food with additives and food dyes, and then they don’t get recess. It’s a recipe for disaster and if you look at a lot of schools in low income areas, the students are suffering and so is their classroom performance.

9. You are located in Midwest. How do you think Midwest is doing in school food system compared to east coast and west coast? What are your thoughts on this?

I like the Organic School Project, The Healthy Schools Campaign, Common Threads, and Purple Asparagus, all of which are based in Chicago. I’m aware of REAP in Madison, but aside from that, it doesn’t seem like there is much action in the Midwest. Certainly, I’m sure that there are schools that are doing good things, but in comparison to efforts in New York and California, there is room for improvement.

10. Could you please comment on the recent news such as the House voting to send child nutrition bill to President Obama?

I’m really excited that the Healthy, Hunger-free Kids Act passed and that President Obama was able to sign it into law. I realize that $0.06 per meal isn’t a vast sum, but it is the first increase in decades to a program that is having trouble keeping up with the increasing cost of food. Call me hopeful, but I do believe that the law is more than just lip service, especially considering it gives the USDA more control over competitive foods in schools, which students choose over healthy, hot lunches.

11. Please say something to people who don’t yet understand the importance of a better school food system.
My dad would be one of the people who doesn’t understand why we have to fix school food. He believes that his taxes are too high and that he is already paying for public programs. I’ll tell you what I told him: it’s all about prevention.
We have to put money into school food now so that we aren’t paying for it in skyrocketing healthcare costs down the road. Part of why his taxes are so high is that he’s paying for the healthcare of many people with complications that are the result of a poor diet. Where are the kids from this generation getting education about nutrition? A one-time seventh grade home ec class? Or year after year in our school cafeterias?
We can continue to feed kids crappy food and our country will continue to lag behind other countries that have more robust food cultures and lower rates of diabetes, malnutrition, obesity, heart disease, and cancer. To me, it’s a no brainer.

Check out her twitter and facebook too.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

For the First Time in 15 Years…

Mark Humphrey, AP

The US Department of Agriculture wants to raise the nutrition standards for school meals!! They believe obesity has become that pressing of an issue and need to help fix it.

USA Today said, “The new meal standards are designed to improve the health of nearly 32 million children who eat lunch at school every day and almost 11 million who eat breakfast. Overall, kids consume about 30% to 50% of their calories while at school.”

Some of the requirements are:

-Decrease the amount of starchy vegetables

-Establish calorie max and mins for all grades up to 12

-Serve better milk options: fat-free flavored or 1% milk

-Increase the fruits and vegetables offered to students

-Substantially increase whole grains

-Keep trans fat at a minimum

Ahhh! So exciting because prevention /correction early can really make a difference in the long run.

Get more details from the article here.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Skip the Fast Lane

“Slow Food is a global, grassroots organization with supporters in 150 countries around the world who are linking the pleasure of good food with a commitment to their community and the environment. It was founded in 1989 to counter the rise of fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes and how our food choices affect the rest of the world,” says the website.

Courtesy of Slow Food

Slow Food’s biggest advocates are young people and their Boston division is one of the most active, and fastest growing chapters because of the high level of participation.

The organization’s supporters are called “slow foodies” and they go out on trips to learn more about local food producers, partake in potlucks, and find chefs to go to colleges to show students how they can make their own slow food.

They have a division called Slow Food on Campus. “Slow Food on Campus is a network of Slow Food USA chapters at colleges and universities across the country. Run by students, these chapters engage their communities and the next generation of Slow Food leaders by working towards a good, clean, and fair food system.”

Personally, being a college student, I know how exhausting it is to juggle academics and activities. Sometimes after the trek back home the last thing I want to do is cook and getting fast food seems so easy since it’s around every corner. But I know if I cook my own food, it’ll be more fulfilling all around; that’s why I do it. I think Slow Food is great because we’ve changed into a society where all we want to do is get things done fast. We need to slow down and reconnect.

Read the original article here from

And to explore Slow Food, go here!

Monday, January 3, 2011

Interview with Monica Eng

For those of you interested anything food related in Chicago, chances are you’ve read an article by Chicago Tribune reporter, Monica Eng. Writing stories on food in Chicago for the better part of 20 years now, she has become a well-known and trusted source in the journalism community. In her travels covering food news in Chicago, Monica has written many in-depth stories on food policy, and in recent years, the food policies of the Chicago Public School (CPS) system. Since we here at the Organic School Project have worked closely with a number of CPS schools and administrators to work toward serving better foods to kids, we were excited to sit and speak with Monica about her experience covering stories like these, and how she’s seen the efforts to improve school food progress over the years.

Organic School Project (OSP): How did you get started reporting stories like these? and making relationships with people in the food business in the interest of serving better food to kids?

Monica Eng (ME): In terms of looking at school food policy and efforts to improve it, it started with a piece I wrote on Greg Christian for the Chicago Tribune magazine, which is no longer in existence. I was asked to go interview a chef that was trying to make school food better. Then I did a news story right around the same time that looked like he was going to leave the program at Alcott because CPS was not allowing him to expand the feeding portion of the program to their schools, I think that was in 2007.

OSP: Did you start writing these revealing food stories to follow a trend in the media, or was it something that you found yourself to be passionate about, and pursued it?

ME: It was an assignment. I really had not looked at this issue at all. I was a feature writer, basically writing about restaurants, recipes, and restaurant trends, leisurely topics. But the editors of the magazine asked me to interview Mr. Christian.

OSP: Since you’ve been following the movement here in Chicago as a reporter for quite a few years now, do you see any changes? improvements? lessons learned? in the way that organizations (like OSP) go about making changes to the food that we’re feeding our children in school?

ME: There is certainly much more attention nationally and locally, that sort of has to do with the First Lady’s Let’s Move campaign. Some of it has to do with the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, which has profited a lot of the campaigns out there. And Jamie Oliver didn’t hurt either, with his TV show. So, I think that there has definitely been an increase in coverage of it and I think OSP was a real pioneer that predated a lot of these other efforts.

We would like to thank Monica Eng for taking the time to speak with us here at OSP, and are glad to be in such great media company as we continue to work toward serving better food to our nation’s kids!

Check out some of her articles featuring the betterment of school food:

Most school garden produce is forbidden fruit in CPS lunchrooms

Changes in store for school vending machines

Red tape tangles chefs wanting to improve school lunch

Chicago chefs spice up schools' new push for healthy eating

CPS unveils push for healthier school meals