Two years ago, the executive chef of Noma in Copenhagen – known by many as the best restaurant in the world – left fine dining to cook for much more diminutive palates.
Dan Giusti launched Brigaid, a for-profit organization that recruits professionally-trained chefs to revolutionize school lunch. For Giusti, this meant shifting away from creating adventurous, innovative meals sporting a $500 price tag to cooking up things to nourish and tempt children for just $1.25 per meal.
To hear him tell it, it's a far more rewarding challenge.
Confronting the School Lunch Conundrum
Giusti is not the first to face off with the problems plaguing school lunch in the United States. Former First Lady Michelle Obama made healthy school lunches a priority during her time in the White House, including adding whole grain and minimum fruit and vegetable requirements and scaling back sodium and sugar.
But for Giusti and the rest of Brigaid, the challenge wasn’t just to find out a way to make meals nutritious; the idea was to get kids eating.
It's not for them. It's not for you. It's not for the journalists. It's not for Instagram. It's for the kids.
About one in five children in the United States come from food insecure households, with an estimated more than 13 million kids going to school hungry every day. The role of school cafeterias, then, becomes even more essential: for many children, this is the only proper meal they will eat in the day.
This was part of the motivation cited by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue when he scaled back some of Mrs. Obama’s regulations last year, claiming that her changes led to lunches that schoolchildren just didn’t eat (a theory corroborated by a study from the Harvard School of Public Health, which found that 60 percent of vegetables and 40 percent of fresh fruits served in school cafeterias were being thrown away).
"If kids aren't eating the food, and it's ending up in the trash, they aren't getting any nutrition — thus undermining the intent of the program," Perdue said in a statement at the time.
For Giusti, the reality is more of a balancing act: while nutrition is, of course, important, it's also important to ensure that kids are actually eating their lunch.
At first, Giusti had big goals of eradicating foods perceived as unhealthy, like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. But he soon realized that some kids crave the comfort of enjoying the same food every day. He ended up replacing the PB&J with a pasta dish, which is offered alongside the daily main and rotates once week.
“The first thing [our dietitian] said was, ‘Oh, I don’t know if I feel comfortable with kids eating pasta every day,’" Giusti recalls. "But I’m like, ‘These kids are eating. They’re eating a hot meal that's been prepared from scratch today, they feel comfortable about eating it.’”
Of course, walking this line poses a unique challenge for a former fine dining chef like Giusti.
“As a chef in a restaurant, you get caught up in cooking what you want to cook,” he says. “And in this case, particularly with your ego, it's something that you really have to put in check.”
He cites the example of a chicken curry that he serves with steamed brown rice; as a chef, he has had to check his desire to garnish it with a chopped herb, like basil or cilantro.
“That's not what they want,” he says. “As a chef, you might look at it and say, ‘This looks extremely pedestrian and basic,’ and you might be concerned with what your peers might think of it, but that doesn't matter. It's not for them. It's not for you. It's not for the journalists. It's not for Instagram. It's for the kids.”
To wit, some of the meals Giusti is most proud of – like a hummus plate topped with an assortment of raw veggies and a za’atar dressing – have been less popular with kids. Others, like barbecued chicken thighs with warm cornbread and potato salad, have become new favorites.
“Kids enjoy it, kids get messy, they enjoy eating warm cornbread, they enjoy eating the chicken with barbecue sauce,” he says. And that's what's most important.
Abandoning the Fine Dining World
While the leap from Noma to New London cafeterias may leave some scratching their heads, Giusti says that it was actually an easy decision, rooted in a reconnection with his original motivations for becoming a chef.
You're not in culinary school saying you want to be a chef in a hospital or anything like that.
Raised in a large, Italian-American family, the idea of taking care of people through food had always been part of Giusti's life. Fine dining, he says, almost crept up on him, an expectation that surfaced when he went to culinary school and found himself facing off with competitive fellow future chefs.
“You're not in culinary school saying you want to be a chef in a hospital or anything like that,” he says. “You're always kind of proving yourself; you're trying to get to a certain level.”
But while competition may have shot him up to a position at Noma, his original desire to not just cook for but to truly feed people brought him back down to earth.
“I wanted to cook for people more often. I think that was probably the most important aspect," he says. "To cook for them in a way that's actually going to change their life.”
And there’s also the interpersonal side of things to consider.
“Forget about being a chef for a second,” Giusti says; for him, one of the most positive aspects of the entire change has been meeting the children he gets to feed.
“Just being in these schools and being positive and being hard-working and giving these kids another bright spot in their day.”
A Rapidly Expanding Enterprise
While Brigaid first launched in just a handful of Connecticut schools, this September, the program will be coming to six New York City cafeterias, and it has garnered interest in even more districts.
Giusti recognizes, however, that it might not work in every school.
“As much as we want to be making this kind of change accessible to every school out there right now, that's just not the case,” he says.
Last year, independent research organization HowGood found that most conventional school lunches contained harmful ingredients like azodicarbonamide, sodium stearoyl lactylate, and calcium propionate, due to a reliance on heavily processed meals that were brought into the cafeterias and merely reheated on the premises. This was due in part to the fact that not only were many cafeterias staffed with people who didn’t actually know how to cook, but also some school kitchens were just not equipped for actual cooking.
While Giusti and his team are hard at work training staff to counteract the first issue, sometimes, that's just not enough.
“It does require a certain type of space with a certain amount of equipment in it, and not every school can have that.”
But Giusti doesn't lose hope, noting that new schools are being built all the time, in nearly every school district.
“So let's design an appropriately sized kitchen, and then go from there,” he says.
Giusti's optimism is contagious, but many of the challenges he faces aren't going away. Today, Giusti and his team are working within the confines of a system that requires them to perform a constant balancing act: budgeting, nutrition, and, of course, simply making kids happy.
“You kind of have to navigate it all together,” he says. “You have to think about it simultaneously; so as you're looking through the guidelines, and as you're working through the budget, you're thinking, 'We're not gonna make this, because the kids really don't want this.'”
Because at the end of the day, that’s what’s most important.
“You want to keep them happy. But you need to find a way to move them forward and feed them the right things that they should be eating... or at least get them moving in the right direction,” says Giusti.
"So how do we do that? It's usually meeting somewhere in the middle.”
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Images care of Brigaid