This fall, school cafeterias will have to hold the fries, offer only low fat or nonfat milk and serve kids more whole grains, fruits and veggies. It's the first major nutritional overhaul of students' meals in 15 years. And for one woman, it can't happen soon enough.
"It feels great. It's like oh thank God, thank God I'm out. I just couldn't keep it in any longer," says Sarah Wu, "Fed Up With Lunch" blogger.
Wu risked her job and told the unappetizing truth about school lunches.
"What bothered me so much was so many of the students that I work with really live in poverty and many times are relying on the school for potentially their best meal of the day," says Wu.
Every day for a year, the Chicago School District speech pathologist, bought a school lunch, secretly snapped a photo, ate and then blogged about it under the name "Mrs. Q."
"The chili had a dark taste to it as if it were over seasoned, in the picture it looks like poo…" Wu explained.
Alison Stark tries to feed her family the best possible food. She continues to follow Wu's blog.
"My son is obviously not eating school lunch now, but it's something I have to worry about in the next five years and I want to be an educated individual and make good choices for him," says Stark.
The USDA requires school lunches to meet specific nutrition standards, but Sarah found meats were heavily processed and loaded with fillers.
"I think parents think things like a chicken nugget, a chicken tender is a piece of chicken that's been chopped up, breaded, and maybe pan fried or baked, but what I found out is that it's only 50 percent chicken," says Wu.
Wu says all meals were prepackaged and heated. "That was something that I really couldn't comprehend because when I was in school, lunch ladies were cooking and when we got pizza it was off of massive metal trays," explains Wu.
Wu says by the end of the year she felt exhausted and saw similar symptoms in the students.
"I just thought the whole experience of mine really mirrored that of a student," says Wu.
She says she saw kids give up. "A lot of the older kids just throw away the whole lunch. So they take the chocolate milk, they take the whole tray, and dump it in the garbage and then they sit down with their friends and drink it," adds Wu.
Besides the food, Wu says lunch periods are too short. "With a 20 minute lunch period including lining up time you're looking at eating time on 9-13 minutes," says Wu.
Wu says parents can push for change by joining a school wellness committee or starting one. Stark says she'll be the first to sign up when it's time for her son to go to school.
Wu wrote a book about her surprise lunch experiences called "Fed Up With Lunch."
Consequently, she did not end up losing her job as feared but did decide to transfer schools.
According to the Department of Agriculture, schools will receive an additional six cents a meal to help them improve their menus. The new standards are expected to cost $3.2 billion over the next five years. Schools have three years to phase in the necessary changes.
Additonal Information on School Lunches:
More than any other meals, kids have a lot of control over what they eat for lunch at school, which could be why one child in every four is overweight or obese. According to a University of Michigan Health System study, 30.6 million U.S students consume school lunches. Children who ate school meals were more than twice as likely to consume fatty meats (25.8 percent vs. 11.4 percent) and sugary drinks (36 percent vs. 14.5 percent), while also eating fewer fruits and vegetables. (Source: www.med.umich.edu)