INTERVIEW-From fine dining to $1 school lunches - the top chef trying to change how Americans eat

by Thin Lei Win | @thinink | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 19 September 2019 12:01 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Newark Prep Charter School students eat lunch inside of the schools cafeteria in Newark, New Jersey April 16, 2013. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

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In 2018, one in nine American households or 37.2 million people were hungry, with the figure going up to one in seven in households with children

By Thin Lei Win

ROME, Sept 19 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Dan Giusti was head chef at Denmark's Michelin-starred Noma, regularly voted one of the world's best restaurants, he served intricately prepared dishes with locally sourced ingredients and lavish prices.

Now he feeds thousands of underprivileged children at public schools in the United States, offering wholesome meals on a budget of $1 apiece through his consultancy firm Brigaid, which last week began training cafeteria staff at nine more schools.

Hunger is the most pressing concern at the schools where they work, although the United States' much talked about obesity problem is a huge issue as well, Giusti said.

"The students are not eating much, if anything, outside of school ... so these meals are absolutely crucial," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Connecticut, where he is based.

"We've seen kids trying to steal sandwiches to bring home to feed their families."

Giusti founded Brigaid three years ago and hopes to take its services nationwide, seeing an opportunity to teach Americans what constitutes tasty, healthy food from a young age, said the chef, whose big Italian family inspired him to start cooking.

"The kids that go to these public schools are attending school from a very young age all the way to 18 so you really have an opportunity to get to them in terms of feeding them and getting them to think differently about food."

In 2018, one in nine American households or 37.2 million people were hungry, with the figure going up to one in seven in households with children, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Globally, one in four people, or two billion, lack access to healthy food, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has said.

A Brigaid chef currently serves three meals a day to more than 3,600 schoolchildren in eight schools in New York City and Connecticut under the National School Lunch Program, which provides free or reduced meals.

The schools receive slightly more than $3 per lunch in subsidies from the federal government and have about $1 per meal to spend on food after covering the cost of labor, equipment and other items such as milk to drink.

This means the ingredients are not always local or organic, but that's the reality, said Giusti.

He said he intended to speak out on issues such as a need for federal policy changes, much the way British chef Jamie Oliver spoke out to help improve school nutrition in the U.K. more than a decade ago.

He said he learned that changing people's minds can take time and patience after taking peanut butter and jelly sandwiches off a school menu.

The move prompted one school boy to cry, and he said he realized the reason he stopped serving the sandwiches was his own ego.

"These are kids who are dealing with really challenging situations outside and inside of school," Giusti said.

"Coming to the cafeteria only to be stressed out even more because they're being pushed to eat something they're not familiar with, or don't want to try, knowing they're not going to eat until the next day, is really crazy."

"At the end of the day we're making it for them. It's not for you. It's not for me. It's not for Instagram."

(Reporting By Thin Lei Win @thinink, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, and property rights. Visit www.trust.org)

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