A few years back, public school speech pathologist Sarah Wu forgot to pack her lunch and decided to grab a meal in her school’s cafeteria along with the students. After seeing the “nutritious” meal that was being served to children every day, Wu was inspired to challenge herself to get involved and get the word out to others, especially parents that may not realize the lack of healthy foods their sons or daughters were being fed each day. In order to do this Wu ate school lunch every day in 2010 while anonymously blogging, tweeting and sharing photos of the meals under the pseudonym Mrs. Q.
Mrs. Q’s Fed up with Lunch blog caused quite a stir and while Wu did continually fear that at any time she could be ousted and possibly lose her job, she continued to share her thoughts on the state of school food. This persistence has paid off with national recognition of her efforts on outlets like Good Morning America and National Public Radio. This public acknowledgment went a step further on Wednesday, October 05, 2011 when Wu relinquished her anonymity as Mrs. Q in order to release a book about her experience called “Fed up with Lunch: How One Anonymous Teacher Revealed the Truth about School Lunches – And How We Can Change Them”.
And while Wu is now busier than ever, she will continue to blog, as she has since the challenge ended, about school lunch reform and to share the eating habits of her own family and her decision to eliminate gluten from her own diet. Because of this dedication to a healthier, more balanced diet, as well as her first hand knowledge of food allergies, we asked Wu to share with us her experience with dietary issues and how similar eating habits could play a part in school meals.
Central Restaurant Products: What was your diet like before the lunch project and looking back how did it affect your health?
Sarah Wu: I always thought of my diet as healthy. I made sure we ate balanced meals and planned dinner with a meat, a grain, and a veggie. But I wasn’t focused on ingredients or organics like I do now. We never ate fast food on a regular basis, but we did eat out quite a bit. My health was ok, but I have been suffering with IBS for almost ten years.
CRP: Without the school lunch project, do you think you would have looked into going gluten free? Why or why not?
SW: As I discuss very briefly in the book, I went gluten free for a couple of weeks about four years ago. In the book, I said that my brief voyage into gluten free living was because of my IBS. It was also because I was having difficulty getting pregnant and I was reading fertility books obsessively. One book mentioned going gluten free and drinking whole milk. I was desperate to get pregnant so I tried their recommendations. I felt really good (and I ended up getting pregnant that month) and did a little research online and found “Celiac disease.” Because my IBS was better, I thought I must have Celiac disease so I went to a GI doctor (gastroenterologist) for a test. The blood test was negative and the doctor told me, “You do not have a problem with wheat so go ahead and resume a normal diet.” Although I was relieved that I didn’t have an autoimmune disorder like Celiac, I was stumped because I felt oddly better without wheat. Since I trusted the doctor, I started eating wheat again.
I never would have questioned the doctor’s recommendations again because the test results were clear. Additionally my father is a doctor and we believe in medical science and technology.
It just so happened that when I was appearing anonymously on a food blogging conference in San Francisco in October 2010, I started talking to Alison St. Sure, who is a food blogger who has Celiac disease. We just started chatting and she mentioned her diagnosis. I told her something like, “That’s funny, a few years ago I thought I had Celiac disease, but my test was negative.” She said something then that changed my life, “You know just because you don’t have Celiac disease doesn’t mean you don’t have a problem with wheat. What the doctor should have said was that you could be gluten sensitive.” I was stunned. I decided that night that when the project was over I would try gluten free living again.
CRP: What sources did you use to go gluten free?
SW: I relied on the internet for my information especially The University of Chicago – Celiac Disease Center for basic information and then I delved into blog’s like Alison St. Sure and other gluten free bloggers like Gluten Free Girl. One thing I really like are Facebook pages like Gluten Free Easily and The Center for Celiac Research.
CRP: What advice would you give to someone thinking about going gluten free?
SW: It’s important that someone who thinks that they have Celiac disease gets tested prior to going gluten free. If you are gluten free prior to the test, your body will stop producing the antibodies to wheat and those are what reveal a problem. Get tested and then try the diet. Celiac disease is a serious autoimmune disease whose rates are doubling every 15 years. It is very troubling. Research the symptoms. Even if you don’t have Celiac disease, you may find a benefit to gluten free living like I had. I feel amazing and I’ll never go back.
CRP: What benefits are there to going gluten free? What are the drawbacks?
SW: For someone like me, the benefits are incredible. My IBS is totally gone. I also have more energy. Many people who say they go gluten free mention having more energy. For me I think that having chronic digestive troubles drained my energy. Now my body can focus on other things, which makes me feel physically stronger.
The drawback is eating out. It can be hard to find a restaurant that understands what gluten can do to people like me. But I have found lots of restaurants, including major chains, have gluten free menus. All you have to do is ask.
CRP: How have you had to change your shopping routine since going gluten free?
SW: Now I read all labels. I’m aware of ingredients more than ever. Also we are eating more whole foods (fruits, veggies, meats) and those are naturally gluten free.
CRP: Are there any food item substitutes that just don’t measure up to the original? Any items you or your family miss having?
SW: I think it’s hard to find a perfect match for pasta that doesn’t contain gluten. I have been able to find equivalents to most things. It just takes time. When I feel bad it’s usually when we go out to dinner and we get a bread basket on the table. My son is able to wait for his food, but I just feel bad he has to miss out at certain restaurants.
CRP: What products have been easiest to switch from?
SW: Finding gluten free cereal and oatmeal is not hard. I think breakfast is pretty easy to make gluten free because eggs, bacon and OJ are gluten free (check individual brands).
CRP: What foods do you find yourself eating more often due to your change in diet?
SW: I think that my overall awareness of food has made me eat more fruits and veggies than before. I still eat too many cookies — some things never change!
CRP: How difficult do you think it would be for a school (yours or your son’s daycare for example) to go gluten free? What specific roadblocks do you see them running into? If money and administrative restraints were no issue, would you recommend schools going this route?
SW: I think it would be hard to meet the USDA requirements (each school lunch averages about two servings of grain) and not incorporate wheat. But if you look at school lunch, they are serving a ton of wheat –what happened to other grains? Rice? Corn? Quinoa? Spelt? Barley? Rye? I believe everything in moderation and people are consuming more wheat than ever before. Oddly, rates of Celiac disease have been doubling every 15 years. That might be a sign that people should each a more diverse diet.
If money and administrative costs were not a concern, I would advise schools to back off the overabundance of wheat. A varied diet is more wholesome.
CRP: How do you believe students would benefit from going gluten free?
SW: Well, 97% of people with Celiac disease have not been diagnosed. One in 133 people are living with Celiac disease and most of them don’t know it. This can lead to living with another chronic disease as people with undiagnosed Celiac disease are at risk of developing other ailments including cancer. I consider this to be an epidemic. So I think that if more students ate a varied diet, they might be able to notice a correlation between how they feel after they eat a gluten free meal versus a wheat-heavy meal.
In discussing Celiac disease, I make no mention of people like me who have some kind of undiagnosed gluten sensitivity. Who knows how many people there are who could benefit from eating less gluten.
For more information on gluten-free eating, be sure to check out our post: Living with Dietary Restrictions: Gluten-Free.
To learn more about Sarah Wu and her book “Fed up with Lunch: How One Anonymous Teacher Revealed the Truth about School Lunches – And How We Can Change Them”, visit her site Fed Up With Lunch.