Another Chef Tackles School Lunch

by on January 12, 2016

A well-known chef leaves a flourishing restaurant career in Europe to come to America to fix school lunch. Sound familiar? No, I am happy to report that this is not the second coming of Jamie Oliver.

Just before the holidays, the Washington Post profiled Daniel Giusti, formerly chef de cuisine at Copenhagen’s world-renowned Noma, who says he is ready for a career change to something that would help improve the American diet. What better place to start than with kids?

He plans to tackle the problem of improving school food head on by providing schools with what they need most – updated kitchens and trained chefs.

As the Post article explains:

“His company, Brigaid, would build whole new kitchens or improve existing ones at schools and then hire professional chefs to work full-time in them. Brigaid would differ from other chef-oriented programs, such as first lady Michelle Obama’s Chefs Move to Schools, in that Giusti’s crew would be working daily to address the issues, not once a week or once a month.”

Giusti told the Post that his company already has investors interested.

As he explained in an interview with Lucky Peach, the company will be for-profit, but not in the same way that established school meal providers like Aramark view “profit.”

“A lot of these big companies like Aramark are pushing for like 20 percent profit margins, which is extremely high in any food business,” he told Lucky Peach. “In restaurants you’re lucky if you’re making 5 percent in bottom-line profit. So to shoot for 20 percent—that’s not what we’re going for. In the end we want a profit margin that allows us to maintain the business. The goal is not to become rich.

“Profit, for me, means that we continue to push forward and makes sure we can pay people—and I’m not talking about myself or other higher-up people. I want to be able to train people who are currently working in school cafeterias. I want to train them to know more, and also pay them more for that knowledge.”

It’s good that Giusti defines “profit” as the ability to expand, rather than to make money for investors or even, apparently, for himself. That’s because there is rarely extra money in school food budgets, where the basic rule is:





In other words, on a budget of barely over $3 per meal, which is what the federal government gives schools for each free lunch served, you can obtain healthy unprocessed food and generously pay cafeteria staff to scratch cook it into delicious meals, but you are not going to also be able to balance your budget just on the revenue from those meals.

It’s important to remember that even though $3 and change may seem like enough to pay for high quality in both ingredients and labor, cafeterias also have other expenses they must cover out of those few dollars – costs like utilities, pest control, garbage, and front office staff to collect and process free meal applications and all of the paperwork to get that government payment. Everything from napkins, straws, eating utensils, and meal trays, to refrigerator and stove repair, to plastic gloves and aprons for cafeteria staff, all comes out of the same payment.

Schools that do manage to serve healthy meals and pay staff high wages are generally underwriting their free lunch program with the sale of not-so-healthy a la carte items – anything from pizza slices to bags of school-regulation-compliant Flamin’ Hot Cheetos – to students with money to pay for them. But these a la carte sales bring problems of their own, including stigmatizing the kids who can’t afford to buy them and must rely on free lunch or else go hungry.

While the federal government does make some grant money available for school kitchen equipment ($25 million in 2015), it is a mere drop in the bucket. As recently as the 2012-13 school year, a report by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that nearly $620 million worth of food service equipment was needed in California alone for schools to be able to better serve healthy food.

The cost nationwide was in the billions, and if the government continues to offer only $25 million annually, it would take more than 100 years to fund current equipment needs.

That’s why schools that serve healthier food and pay high wages pretty much always need some kind of additional financial support, to help cover the cost of equipment, of training staff to scratch cook, and of promoting the school meal program to students and families, to get more kids eating school lunch.

That support might come in the form of a nonprofit, like this one set up by Chef Ann Cooper in Boulder (CO), to raise money to pay for staff training to scratch cook, for upgraded equipment, for nutrition education for the students and their families so that they understand the benefits of healthier eating, and for marketing of the healthier meals to students and families, so that they are eager to take part in the school meal program.

Such support might come from an existing foundation, like Orfalea in Santa Barbara (CA), which has contributed nearly $13 million since 2007 to help improve the quality of school food in Santa Barbara’s schools. Or the Vetri Community Partnership, founded by Chef Marc Vetri, which runs the Eatiquette school lunch program in a handful of Philadelphia-area schools, as well as offering culinary arts training for students.

Or the support might come from the school district itself, as is the case in San Francisco Unified. The Student Nutrition Services (SNS) department of SFUSD has long run at a deficit, in large part due to the commitment of the SF Board of Education to both serving students healthier meals and also paying cafeteria staff a living wage in one of the most expensive regions of the country.

SFUSD budget projections for the current school year show that SNS deficit topping $3 million.

School nutrition departments are required by law to balance their budget, so SFUSD transfers money from its general fund into the so-called “cafeteria fund” to cover any deficit. Any school district would be free to do the same, to relieve its nutrition department from the obligation to sell daily pizza slices or junk food to balance the budget, but many say they can’t afford that.

Without foundation backing or a supportive school board willing to make up any deficit, it’s hard for schools to make the switch from offering heat-and-serve processed food to scratch cooking.

So it’s great that Giusti plans to start from the ground up, building and equipping school kitchens, then staffing them with highly trained people to cook. This is exactly the kind of outside support many school would need before they could consider scratch cooking.

I can hardly wait to see how all this plays out at Brigaid’s first pilot school, which Giusti told the Post he expects to have in place by autumn 2016.

I wish Giusti the best of luck with this project. He’s a successful chef with an international reputation, who could have gone anywhere in the world to cook at any high end joint, but instead he wants to help American students get a healthy, chef-prepared fresh school lunch. What’s not to love about this guy?

It’s always fascinating to see what happens when people (or companies) announce that they are going to produce fresher, healthier, better-tasting school meals on the same budget as the chicken nuggets, pizza, and highly processed carnival food that has come to epitomize American school lunch.

Even as the higher nutritional standards of the 2010 Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act brought more fresh fruit, vegetable and whole grains to cafeteria trays, school nutrition directors legitimately griped that the mere 6 cents extra provided by the government to cover the higher cost of more nutritious food was not nearly sufficient. They’re right about that – have you seen what apples and broccoli cost lately?

Although some schools long ago said goodbye to the old routine of corn dogs, burgers, pizza and nuggets, and have made admirable progress in scratch cooking more creative and nutritious fare, a close examination of the budget will nearly always show that better quality food is rarely prepared by highly paid staff.

School lunch company Revolution Foods (which Giusti studied while forming ideas for Brigaid) uses better quality ingredients than the typical cafeteria contractor like Aramark, and fewer of the low cost government commodities on which most school meal programs depend. They have also pledged to pay their employees more than the prevailing wage in the communities they serve.

However, the company, started a decade ago, is yet to be profitable, which may explain why they are expanding their business into retail sales of family snacks and “meal kits” in grocery stores. This additional revenue stream is apparently necessary in the same way that it is necessary for schools to sell a la carte snacks – because there is no profit to be made from just serving government-paid cafeteria meals.

So, toques off to Chef Daniel Giusti and Brigaid. So long as he sticks to his belief that it isn’t important to make a profit, his enterprise should be a smashing success.

Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at Follow her on Twitter @nestwife, or read more than 140 characters of her writing in her complete archive.

Dana Woldow

Dana Woldow advocates for policies, including soda taxes and better school meals, to improve the health of all children through better nutrition and education. She has been a leader in improving school food in San Francisco since 2002, when she formed a school nutrition group to run a pilot removing junk food from SFUSD's Aptos Middle School, where her children were students; the pilot was expanded to all of the city's public middle and high schools in 2003. She served as co-chair of the SFUSD Student Nutrition and Physical Activity Committee from October 2003 to June 2011.

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