Three men stand behind trays of food in a school cafeteria.
Dan Giusti (middle) at a cooking "throwdown" at a school in New London, Connecticut. Winter Caplanson/Connecticut Food and Farm

This fall, a former chef at the world-famous restaurant Noma is piloting a new approach to school lunch in New York City.

School lunch is a problem that, so far, no one has really solved. Is it possible to cook for hundreds or thousands of kids, with only about $1.25 per head (after labor and equipment costs), following guidelines that mandate exact proportions of protein, carbs, and sugar, and still make it taste good?

Usually, no. Hence the cliché of school lunch: a droopy piece of pizza or a gray hamburger patty on a Styrofoam tray, next to a mini-carton of milk and an apple.

Starting this week, a chef named Dan Giusti will try to transform school lunch in New York City, working from the Morris high-school campus in the Bronx. Giusti, 34, was born in New Jersey and raised in the Washington D.C. area. He attended the Culinary Institute of America. Not long ago, he was the chef de cuisine at Noma, a two-Michelin-starred restaurant in Copenhagen that has repeatedly been named the best restaurant in the world.

Then, in early 2016, Giusti quit. He was burned out on fine dining. He didn’t want to keep serving a small group of people at hundreds of dollars per head. “I started thinking, ‘How can I feed as many people as possible every day?’” he said. “Like, what about waking up and saying, ‘We fed several million people today.’” He considered opening a fast-food-style restaurant chain, but settled on school lunch—the Achilles heel of large-scale food service.

Dan Giusti (Courtesy of Brigaid)

Less than a year later, after emailing with Manuel Rivera—then the superintendent of schools for New London, Connecticut—Giusti started working in the kitchens of two public schools in New London. His team of chefs, called Brigaid, eventually moved into all six of New London’s schools, feeding 3,300 students every day.

At the time of Giusti’s arrival in New London, the district was struggling with lunch, Rivera said. Parents were complaining about the quality and nutritional value of the food. Giusti wanted first and foremost for real cooking to happen in schools’ kitchens. He put out drinking water, introduced a snack cart, and did away with Styrofoam trays in favor of plates. He overhauled menus so they’d be kid-friendly, cost-friendly, and adhere to nutritional standards.

Most important was taste. “Every [school-food] conference you go to,” he said, “[it’s] all they talk about: nutrition, nutrition, nutrition. The fact of the matter is, no one eats the food. So the food can’t be nutritious if no one eats the food.”

The chefs-in-schools model has been tried before, going back to Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, California, which melded a garden with classroom learning and helped spawn the slow-food movement. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver tried to overhaul school lunch in the U.K., a campaign chronicled in a reality TV show (and which he later admitted was a failure, blaming a culture in which healthy eating was seen as “posh”). Michelle Obama started a “Chefs Move to Schools” program to bring chefs into local schools in a volunteer capacity.

Brigaid says that because it doesn’t have school financial details from prior to its takeover, it can’t point to hard evidence that participation in school lunch in New London has risen—but the organization maintains that it has, and that food waste has declined. On Wednesday nights, Giusti hosts community meals in the cafeteria after-hours for $5 a head; he says people come from all over Connecticut for the fine-dining experience.

Dozens of school districts approached Giusti after he started in New London—including New York City’s. “The SchoolFood team was following Dan’s work in New London and was impressed by the innovative approach he was taking,” Eric Goldstein, chief executive of the Office of School Support Services for the New York City Department of Education, wrote in an email. Now Brigaid is expanding into the nation’s largest school system. On September 5, the first day of school, Giusti’s team will be at Morris High School, and he hopes that by Christmas Brigaid will be in five other schools in the Bronx.

The Department of Education selected the Bronx for the pilot. “As the largest school district in the nation serving 1.1 million students, it takes thoughtful planning to bring any new program to scale,” Goldstein said by email. “That’s why we’re starting small with a pilot program, from which we can evaluate its success and determine next steps.” The per-meal cost of working with Brigaid will be roughly equivalent to what it was with the previous provider, Goldstein added.

School lunch in New York City has long been maligned by union officials, parents, and kids. Across the U.S., despite the addition of new menu options and strides toward healthier food, a 2015 report found that districts were plagued by declining participation and food waste—in other words, kids were still throwing much of their lunch in the trash. New York school officials hope that tastier, from-scratch cooking will help reverse those trends. (In New York City, as of last year, all students eat for free, as they do in Boston, Chicago, and Dallas.)

“The schools I’ll be working in are primarily in communities of need, as they are in New London,” Giusti said. But it will still be a huge shift, for him and for the district: Giusti said raw meat hasn’t been cooked in New York public schools in decades.

A lunch served at J.F.K Elementary School in Kingston, N.Y. (Mary Esch/AP)

“I’m as busy as I’ve ever been in my life,” he told CityLab while driving between New London and the Bronx, a commute he’ll be doing more and more. “I think the biggest challenges are primarily the ones we’re facing now—the large systematic things to get the program up and running.”

Despite having to scale up, he’s approaching his task much as he approached it originally in New London: trying to make lunches that kids will like. This involves a series of detailed questions about how food will look, taste, and be served. For instance, will students eat off trays or plates? In New London, he introduced plates, but in New York, it will be trays: The district has spent years developing a compostable tray.

“I will say in retrospect, as much as plates are cool and I think it did make a huge impact on students and continues to, it adds so much labor,” Giusti acknowledged. “So I’m glad we’re going to try making something on trays, so we get used to that, and now we have to figure out: How do you make things look good on the tray?”

He has adjusted his philosophy since he started in New London. Originally, he said, he was determined to introduce kids to new flavors. The team took peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches off the menu because he was worried kids were using it as a crutch. Now, he questions whether that was the right call.

“Some of these kids have situations at home that they really shouldn’t have, and they’re dealing with things they really shouldn’t be dealing with,” he said. “And then when they come to lunch, you don’t want to add stress to their already difficult life by saying, ‘Try this new thing.’”

The first day, at least, Giusti and his colleagues are going to keep it simple. As of mid-August, they hadn’t set a final menu, but they were thinking meatloaf. “Meatloaf with mashed potatoes and kale chips, maybe.” They’ll take it from there.

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