A Michelin-Starred Chef Is Crafting $3 Lunches From Scratch For Thousands Of Public Schoolers
From Insider by Hilary Brueck
Five years ago, Dan Giusti was the chef at Noma in Copenhagen, when it was named the “best restaurant in the world.”
He served guests elaborate, 15-plus course meals, at around $300 a head. A perennial favorite was the beef tartare seasoned with black ants.
Now, his “guests” are more than 3,600 schoolkids in eight cafeterias across Connecticut and New York. For about $3.41 – less than one one-hundredth the going price of a Noma meal today – the kids are provided with fresh, flavorful, prepared foods at school.
One of his favorite dishes to serve is a cheese ravioli with homemade marinara sauce, topped with parmesan cheese and a side of steamed broccoli – no ants included. The dish is warm when it arrives on a child’s lunch tray, and for the students, it’s free.
But the most important part, Giusti said, is that he’s confident the kids will eat what is on their plate.
Giusti is the CEO and founder of a three year old company called Brigaid, which aims to make school food from fresh ingredients – not frozen boxes and cans – providing tasty, healthful meals while still adhering to an exacting set of federal nutrition guidelines. To do this, Brigaid has dispatched a small group of trained restaurant chefs into school kitchens (starting in the Bronx and New London, Connecticut) to menu plan, and cook meals for kids every day.
“In this country, we’ve seen in the past 10, 15, 20 years the quality of food, the interest in food, skyrocket,” Giusti said. “But at this level, it didn’t change at all. It’s a huge disparity.”
Some day, Giusti said he envisions the company overhauling other kinds of institutional kitchens, like those found in prisons and hospitals. But first, he wants to perfect the school menu, an already daunting task.
School lunch that’s not kid-friendly won’t get eaten, even if kids are really hungry
In the summer of 2016, Giusti and two veteran chefs showed up at their first Brigaid location, in New London, Connecticut. There, they decided to throw out the entire existing menu. No more peanut butter and jelly; their new sandwiches were going to have some flare.
One sandwich included roast turkey with stuffing-flavored mayonnaise along with cranberry sauce.
The Thanksgiving sandwich reviews were not great.
“The kids hated it,” he said. “The idea of fruit and meat was like the most disgusting.”
Unlike the once-in-a-lifetime meals Giusti used to serve at Noma, where a rejected plate might simply get sent back to the kitchen full, many children rely on their school lunches to get through the day. In New London, breakfast and lunch are free for all students.
More than 62% of the district’s kids live in households receiving food stamps or some other form of federal food assistance.
“If you see a kid who’s hungry, and they choose not to eat because you’ve chosen to make the food too ambitious? You feel pretty terrible,” Giusti said.
Today, Giusti has pared back the sandwich offerings to simpler fare, including sunbutter and jelly sandwiches.
“As a chef, you’re like, ‘Oh, we gotta put something else on this,'” he said. “But why, if they don’t want it?”
He takes much of his inspiration from a favorite aunt’s cooking when he was growing up.
With Brigaid, school food is no longer “coming out of a jar”
Kelly Avery, who has been working in New London school kitchens for 19 years, says the knife skills she’s learned with Brigaid have changed the way she cuts vegetables, even at home. There’s no doubt the quality of the food at school has improved overall, too, she said.
“Before it was just coming out of a jar or, really, out of a can,” Avery said.
Homemade pizza, barbecue chicken, and a Caesar dressing that Avery makes from scratch with lemon juice and mustard powder are all on the menu now. It isn’t always easy getting the kids to “try new stuff.”
“But I think they have adapted to the food,” she said.
Cut cantaloupe, strawberry smoothies, and warm cornbread are now on the menu
Not every school in the country is equipped to serve such fresh food. Some schools have only warming closets for pre-packaged meals, and no ovens, mixers, or other chef’s tools.
Eventually, Brigaid wants to work with even more schools.
The company has plans in the works to train six more schools in Richmond, Virginia and three in Southampton, New York. As the company grows, Giusti envisions they’ll no longer dispatch chefs to work permanently in school district kitchens, instead training local school food service staff extensively.
Change doesn’t have to be monumental, either. Cutting and portioning fruit slices is one of the most successful moves the Brigaid crew in New London has made to date.
For the kids, having fresh slices of chopped cantaloupe, and portioned grapes, instead of whole apples, for example, can make the difference between a kid enjoying lunch and not eating at all.
“They’re five years old, they have four teeth, and they have 10 minutes to eat,” Giusti said.
Nathan Hale Arts Magnet, an elementary school in New London, has had a lot of success getting kids to eat more fresh fruit with Brigaid. The school now goes through about 400 fruit servings a day for a student body of 500 kids. Fewer apples end up in the trash, and more fiber-filled fruits, rich in vitamins and minerals, end up in the kids’ bellies.
Brigaid chefs still have to adhere to federal requirements
If schools want to use federal dollars to make breakfast and lunch, they have to adhere to strict nutrition guidelines.
“It’s really easy in a heat and serve operation,” New London child nutrition program manager Samantha Wilson said. “The box says this product meets this grain [requirement], and this protein, and all of these things. Then you can just serve it, and you check a box.”
Cooking foods from scratch opens up a much larger nutrition equation. For example, school lunches for kids from kindergarten through 5th grade across the US must have less than 1,300 mg of salt, allotting less than a quarter of a tablespoon over the entire mid-day meal. The equation gets complicated quickly when you’re whipping up sauces, simmering meats, and offering multiple sides on a tray.
Besides, kids tend to enjoy the heat-and-serve processed food at school. It’s designed to taste good and get digested quickly.
“How do you tell a kid that bone-in chicken thigh – fresh – is better than chicken nuggets?” head chef Alex Leigh, a veteran restaurant cook who runs the Brigaid meal plans at all six New London schools, said.
Serving fresh food at school can change kids for life
The kind of food kids eat at school matters. Studies show that the eating habits kids pick up as children stay with them into adulthood.
Childhood diets high in processed foods are associated with higher likelihoods of depression and anxiety later in life. A poor diet in the first years of a child’s life can also increase their risk for behavioral and emotional problems.
Some research suggests making healthy diet changes can effectively prevent some depressive episodes, and that eating lots of fruit, vegetables, fish, and whole grains can reduce a person’s risk for depression overall.
Brigaid hasn’t made a profit yet, but the company is banking on its new training strategy
The raw ingredients for Brigaid meals often cost a little less than processed alternatives, but the fresh foods take more time and knowledge to prepare.
The company charges school districts between $6,000 and $36,000 for their food trainings, depending on the length of the program. Those costs aren’t covered by federal lunch reimbursement dollars, so it’s up to school districts to decide how to pay for them. Some have opted to ask corporate sponsors to chip in.
And then there’s always a good chance that the kids won’t like the new fresh food as much as packaged stuff. That’s why non-profit FoodCorps service members, who are dispatched to schools to teach kids about healthy eating, organize school day activities like “broccoli disco” and put on taste tests for some of the most ambitious new foods Brigaid kitchens serve in New London.
Brigaid’s business model could soon be put to the test
Brigaid has yet to make a profit on its training model, and the federal free breakfast and lunch programs that the company takes advantage of in both Connecticut and the Bronx could be in jeopardy nationwide soon.
Under a new proposed Trump administration rule aimed at federal cost-trimming, nearly half a million US students may no longer qualify for free breakfasts and lunches by 2021. That could mean fewer kids in places like New London will qualify for free meals, and thus district-wide free food programs could get slashed.
In that case, as more students weigh whether or not to pay cash for plated school lunches, or instead opt for a la carte snacks, the cost of maintaining a Brigaid meal program may no longer add up.
Pizza, pasta, and chicken are perennial hits, but don’t expect any extra salt
On the day I visit Nathan Hale, kids are eating beef enchiladas that taste zesty and flavorful. I find the rice is rather bland (adhering to those federal salt rules, no doubt).
Across the table, Nailah tells me she likes these “spicier” enchiladas the kitchen serves now.
“They do really good here,” she said.
Cheese ravioli, chicken alfredo, and homemade pepperoni pizza are her other favorite dishes at school. Giusti says he knows that nutritionists don’t always endorse pasta and pizza meals, but they meet the nutrition guidelines, and he is committed to serving up things that students will actually enjoy.
nother grade-schooler, sitting near Giusti for lunch, raises her hand and takes an informal poll of the students present “Who likes the food?”
The vote is almost unanimous. The enchiladas have passed the test.