Frozen carrots. Bruised apples. Sad-looking slices of pizza. For too long, school lunches in the U.S. have been overlooked. Highly processed foods are often quickly thrown together with a hodgepodge of unhealthy ingredients. Students deserve better. Brigaid founder Dan Giusti joins Viewpoints this week to share how he, along with hundreds of professional chefs, are redefining the school lunch landscape.
- Dan Giusti, former head chef, Noma, founder, Brigaid.
21-51 The Broken School Lunch System
Marty Peterson: Reminiscing about school lunches often leads to flashbacks of nuked slices of pizza, wilted pieces of Romaine lettuce dressed with ranch and cups of peaches soaking in baths of sugary syrup. These slap together, pre-prepared and highly processed meals are sadly still a reality in many schools across the U.S. That's where Dan Giusti comes in. Giusti started a company he calls Brigaid in 2016. It's focused on bringing back school lunches cooked entirely from scratch that are not only healthy but taste good. Brigaid partners with school districts to place professional chefs in cafeteria kitchens and teach existing staff basic cooking skills to add scratch cooking back into the menu. Giusti hopes his lunches can revitalize the American school lunch system and change how kids perceive certain dishes and ingredients.
Dan Giusti: I couldn't tell you how many kids I've met who I feel like certain things have been ruined for them because the only time they've tasted it has been a really bad version of it.
Peterson: Giusti is accustomed to working in a challenging arena and has long been in the business of serving up good food. Before founding Brigaid, he trained at the Culinary Institute of America and for three years was the head chef of Noma, a fine dining, two Michelin star restaurant in Copenhagen. But in 2015, at the height of his career, Giusti made a big decision to leave the fine dining world and use his talents to bring about change in a space that needed it, hoping to inspire others to do the same.
Giusti: It's all based on the idea of really getting more professionally trained chefs involved in cooking in schools. Obviously, that's kind of where things are lacking now, where you have very strict nutritional guidelines, a very small budget, and then you don't really have a lot of culinary professionals working in school food. Because they typically wouldn't choose to work in a school over, say, a restaurant or hotel.
Peterson: While a school cafeteria and its clientele don't have the same cachet as fine dining. Giusti says the work is rewarding and presents a unique set of challenges, and that's what's driving more chefs to join the cause.
Giusti: There are definitely a lot of chefs out there these days, particularly because restaurants have gone in this direction of really challenging themselves as to the food they create that really do kind of resonate with this idea of working within a very small box and figuring out how to do that. So I think that's exciting for a lot of chefs.
Peterson: However, this shift from serving adults to serving students required more effort on the recipe front than Giusti initially imagined.
Giust: When we first started, for example, we were doing a decent amount of soups and one soup we did was butternut squash soup, but it was butter and squash soup with a good amount of coconut milk in it, so it was, like, pretty sweet. It wasn't outwardly seasoned in any crazy way. It was smooth and like kids literally not only did they not like it—so this is what makes it kind of even more surprising—they were, like, repulsed by it. These are kids that are not far removed from being children in a lot of cases, and a lot of them have siblings at home that are babies, and this tastes like baby food, the texture of it. This smooth soup was like baby food, and that was one of those moments where I'm like, wow, we have no idea.
Peterson: The chefs at Brigaid get feedback through surveys, small focus groups, and most importantly, through conversations with students at the lunchroom table. For many entrees, it's not just about the texture, appearance or smell. It might depend on what the dish is called or a certain ingredient combination. For example, while popular among adults, mixing meat and fruit together in a turkey and cranberry sandwich is a definite no go. Although Brigaid has gotten better about recognizing certain patterns, Giusti says, sometimes it can come down to trivial factors like peer preference. If a friend doesn't like it, oftentimes, a kid won't even try it.
Giusti: If kids aren't eating, we have a big problem. That's obviously the main function of the program, which we operate. And then beyond that, the way the National School Lunch Program works is that every time we serve a meal and the kid eats it, we get reimbursed for that meal. So if kids aren’t eating, no reimbursement comes in. Therefore, the funding essentially for the program goes away, and that obviously is a problem.
Peterson: Through time and learning, Brigaid has celebrated numerous successes. Some of the recipes they've created range from chicken Curry over steamed rice with a chickpea salad and roasted sweet potatoes to a more classic lunch of pasta with bolognese green beans, a warm roll, and cantaloupe slices. The recipes are not only nutritious and tasty, but expose kids to different flavors early on, breaking the mindset that healthy is synonymous with boring, bland meals. Brigaid works with students in all grades, but they found the most success with those who are not yet cemented in their eating habits.
Giusti: I would say anecdotally we've seen from a student standpoint a lot more educated on a variety of foods, much more familiar with different ingredients. That might not mean that they like certain things. That's fine. But the fact that they know what cauliflower is now and they know they don't like it is valuable. And prior to us serving a lot of these foods, a lot of the students were not familiar with them. I would say that particularly the students that were younger when we started, we see kind of more change in their attitude towards trying things, openness to try things and so on. I think when you start to try to introduce a high school age kids to a variety of new things, it's definitely a real challenge. They have a lot going on, and I think they're just a little more adverse to kind of being enthusiastic about just trying something new, for example.
Peterson: We know it's vital to catch kids early on, but sadly, there are many schools that are struggling with more pressing issues. What's for lunch isn't what they're worried about.
Giusti: There are administrators who don't necessarily see the value in this. I mean, for what it's worth, if you're an administrator in a school or a school district, you're dealing with a variety of issues, and it's naive of us to think that they would be prioritizing food over other things. Particularly, it's a shame and it's unfortunate, but there are a lot of schools out there that face very grave challenges that they are trying to deal with. And food, albeit very important, is not always at the top of the list.
Peterson: The USDA says in 2016, the National School Lunch Program served more than 5 billion lunches in the U.S., with nearly 75% provided for free or at a reduced price for students in low income households. In communities where poverty is persistent, the lunch kids eat at school may be their only meal of the day. So what can be done to make it easier for schools to serve better lunches?
Giusti: I think it would be much more helpful if they were a little less prohibitive, a little more general, a little easier to follow. Similarly to any other health guidelines that are out there, there are many, but the USDA nutritional guidelines are extremely specific and challenging to follow. Which again, almost pushed schools to serve processed foods because they have a difficulty in following them themselves because they're not set up with the resources to do so.
Peterson: So Brigaid, armed with trained professional chefs, helps staff navigate through the standards to create a meal. Giusti says another hurdle is following mandated political initiatives that look good on paper but flop in execution.
Giusti: We work with New York City public schools now, and there's an initiative for meatless Monday, so it's not serving meat on Mondays. But the way the National School Lunch Program is set up, you don't have many alternatives for protein outside of meat, then, say cheese. So now all of a sudden you're serving a lot of cheese on Mondays, and then there's criticism for that. It's like trying to be reasonable as far as making initiatives to make things healthier, to make things better. But doing it in a way that's going to be practical.
Peterson: It's clear there are many clashing opinions, but in order to move forward, Giusti says the only way to create change is by gradual adjustments, starting with the basics. After cutting out costs for labor, equipment and maintenance, Brigaid works with a budget of around $1.25 per meal on average. Despite that, Giusti says, it is possible to make it work. The bigger problem is lack of finances to fix the existing infrastructure. Many cafeteria kitchens lack the necessary equipment and space to cook a decent meal. To help find a solution, Brigaid has partnered with a nonprofit architecture firm to figure out how to restructure existing and future school kitchens at the lowest cost possible. While there are many systemic, financial and political challenges that lie ahead, Dan Giusti and the team at Brigaid are solution-oriented and focused on bettering the lunch system and each student one meal at a time.
Giusti: We really want to just make kids feel better. We just feel like it's another element of their day, which we can improve. And in some cases, some of these kids, unfortunately, are living pretty difficult lives. So we see it as a very simple thing, as a way to just kind of take care of them through food.
Marty Peterson: You can learn more about Brigaid and our guest, Dan Giusti, by visiting chefsbrigaid.com. That's spelled B-R-I-G-A-I-D.
For additional links and access to past shows, visit viewpointsradio.org. This segment originally aired in June 2018 and was written by Executive Producer Amirah Zaveri. Studio production by Jason Dickey. I'm Marty Peterson.
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