Welcome to Doing It Right, a column where Eater meets chefs, restaurateurs, and entrepreneurs who recognize challenges in their communities — and are actually doing something about it. In this installment, we head to New London, Connecticut to focus on the work of Brigaid.
Although national nutrition guidelines aim to ensure healthy school lunches for all students, some school districts lack the resources to serve nutritious food that kids want to eat.
What Brigaid is doing about it:
Chef Dan Giusti’s company puts chefs in school kitchens to cook lunches entirely from scratch, and as Brigaid’s chefs create recipes alongside existing cafeteria staff, they make better use of school kitchens and change perceptions of the school cafeteria worker.
Just a few years ago Dan Giusti was cooking at one of the world’s best restaurants. He was the chef de cuisine at Noma, serving 45 people a night at the Copenhagen dining destination. But when he started thinking about next steps, opening his own fine dining institution was never a consideration. Giusti wanted to feed people — lots of people. “You can really affect somebody’s life if you’re cooking for them every day,” he says.
Like many chefs with that inclination, his first instinct was to open a fast-food restaurant, but it felt irresponsible to build new restaurants to feed “millions of people” when there are already so many out there. And so he decided to take his skills to an existing institution — the American public school system. “There’s all this food being made already,” he says. “Why not just make it better?”
In 2015, Giusti announced his intentions to reform school lunches with an article in the Washington Post, promising to put chefs in schools to cook lunches from scratch. And last year, he launched Brigaid in New London, Connecticut, a coastal city with a population of just over 27,000 and a 28.2 percent poverty rate. “[Then-superintendent Manuel Rivera] got it,” Giusti says. “He knew right away that this was a big deal, like if we were going to do this, it’s gonna take money, it’s gonna take buy-in from all the community.”
Samantha Wilson, New London public schools’ child nutrition program manager, worked closely with Giusti to implement the program in New London’s six public schools, including elementary, middle, and high schools. Before Brigaid, the schools handled food service internally, and although kitchen staff prepared some recipes from scratch, Wilson estimates that around 75 percent of meals involved processed food. Now, all school lunches are made from scratch and there’s a trained chef in every cafeteria to develop recipes and introduce new ingredients — in its first year, the New London students were served fresh fish for the first time.
Here’s how it works: Brigaid recruits chefs, who then become employees of the school district. Each Brigaid chef leads the school cafeteria staff in the transition to from-scratch cooking. In addition to overseeing the kitchen staff, the job requires interacting with school administration and the students to figure out what works. Together with Giusti, the chefs create recipes that fit within the National School Lunch Program’s cost and nutrition guidelines — not an easy feat. “I always equate it to speaking a foreign language,” he says. “When you learn a foreign language and you have to translate ahead every time, you can’t be very well versed in it. When you think in that language, that’s when you can be proficient. Same thing with cooking.”
While the USDA determines National School Lunch Program school nutrition requirements, it’s up to individual school districts to decide how to fulfill them. Some schools form purchasing cooperatives, while others contract individually with vendors and distributors or food-service management companies, like Aramark. Increasingly, schools are finding ways to incorporate local produce into school lunches: 42 percent of public school districts participate in “farm to school activities,” which may include serving local food in the cafeteria or leading a field trip to a local farm, and a number of companies and school districts are taking part in the scratch cooking movement. The guidelines and budget ($3.31 per New London student for the 2017 school year) come first during recipe creation. But chefs must also think about how to scale the recipe and how to make it palatable to kids. Unsurprisingly, it hasn’t been easy to find chefs to sign up for the gig.
Brigaid chefs have to put their egos aside in service of an extremely picky customer. Plus, they must adapt to a new kitchen culture. At Brigaid, a certain degree of professionalism is required, not just because of the school environment, but because Brigaid chefs are trying to enforce real change with existing cafeteria staff, school administration, and students. “We are looking for motivated people. We’re trying to make a pretty big cultural shift in food,” Giusti says.
In the coming year, Giusti hopes to work with local farmers to source fruits and vegetables. Wilson notes that getting 3,000 kids to sign on to certain foods is likely to be a slow process. “The idea is to expose them to foods when they’re really young so they don’t have preconceived aversions or preconceived notions about foods they like or they don’t like,” he says. “You see a lot of success in the younger kids and as they start to come up through the grades.”
Brigaid is a private company, not a nonprofit (Giusti wanted to execute his vision for the company without the input of a board, and feared spending much of his time doing fundraising). He compares the way it works to a consulting agreement. The school district agrees to pay the chefs a certain salary and pays Brigaid an annual fee. The program aims to be financially self-sustaining for the school’s food-service department. Giusti says the switch from processed to raw ingredients saves the schools some money, and schools can use their kitchens to produce additional revenue through catering, either at school events or for the wider community.
New London was just the beginning for Brigaid. At the start of the 2018 school year, Giusti launched a pilot program at Morris High School in the Bronx. And as soon as the new system is operating smoothly there, Brigaid will roll out in five other schools in the same district.
For their first Brigaid lunch at Morris, students were offered meatloaf with mashed potatoes and kale chips. Giusti says that, anecdotally, the high school students seem to appreciate the change, but to prove that the program is worth it, Brigaid will need to track how students are participating in the program. “We need to be able to show that more kids are going to eat [school] food now because they really enjoy it,” he says. “We really need to start to get some numbers that back up this kind of change.”
It’s not the only challenge facing Brigaid. The existing school cafeteria staff must also fully embrace change. “The biggest challenge is about making sure that we’re doing things in a way where the staff says happy,” Giusti says. “You’re making this big transition where essentially you are adding on work.” To make the transition easy for the staff and the Brigaid chef who is doing this job for the first time, the lunch menus in the Bronx school are simpler than the menus in New London. Although the new lunch service system isn’t yet seamless, the change will ultimately pay off. “That implementation is going to set things up for scalability and future success across the district,” Giusti says.
To work, Brigaid must please a long list of customers, from the school district to the cafeteria staff to the students. In New York City, there are more stakeholders — hundreds of people on the administrative team oversee the lunch service program in the Bronx, compared to New London’s two, according to Giusti — but, three years in at New London schools, Brigaid is working. “The beauty of our relationship is you have two very specific and unique sets of expertise and knowledge,” says child nutrition program manager Wilson. “I don’t pretend to know the ins and outs and the finer points of recipe development and cooking, but I’m very well-versed about USDA regulations and district guidelines. We really weave all of our strengths in all those spaces together.”
And as Brigaid’s chefs change the recipes for school lunches, the company is also working to change how people think about the school cafeteria. “When we were in school, and when people were in school 100 years ago, the lunch lady was always the bottom of the barrel in the hierarchy of the school, which is ridiculous,” Giusti says. “It’s treated that way from the budgets downward. [Brigaid is] trying to change that whole thing.”
Monica Burton is Eater’s associate restaurant editor.
• Brigaid [Official site]