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A Michelin-starred chef is leaving Copenhagen’s Noma to revolutionize American school lunches

AP Photo/Toby Talbot
Time for a makeover.
By Jenny Anderson
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

After working as head chef at Noma, the famed two-Michelin-star restaurant in Copenhagen, Dan Guisti is taking on an even bigger challenge: school lunches in America.

Giusti, an Italian-American born in New Jersey, founded a for-profit food service company called Brigaid that hopes to work with school districts and NGOs to develop a new model for how school lunches are created and consumed. Here’s how he described his plan to Mold:

The whole idea behind Brigaid is to have chefs cooking in the schools. That of course requires each school to have a kitchen. This idea is easier said than done because of space and more importantly cost. Therefore it will be essential to design a kitchen model that is efficient, durable, cost effective and does not take up too much space.

Giusti, 31, told Lucky Peach that he made the change because he sees cooking in two ways: “discovering masterpieces” or simply feeding people. His passion now is for the latter. “What would make me happy is to wake up every day and know that I’m really feeding people,” he said. “I’m making them happy and I’m changing the way they live because I’m changing the way they eat.”

Brigaid expects to make significantly smaller profit margins than the 20% major food companies like Aramark and Compass generate in the school-food business.

But it won’t be easy. The school-lunch system is incredibly fragmented and kids have become accustomed to low-quality meals. The US National School Lunch Program, which provides free or low-cost lunches, cost $11.6 billion in 2012 and served 32 million kids. The US Department of Agriculture reimburses school districts $3.07 per meal. Any attempts at reform bump up against powerful special interests representing everything form dairy producers and poultry farmers to myriad major food companies.

He’s not the first to take on the challenge. In 2010, Jamie Oliver, the British celebrity chef, came to America to try and fix school lunches, but made little headway. His efforts were challenged by kids who didn’t like the food and the Los Angeles administrators who tried to stop him from filming the accompanying reality-TV show in their schools. Oliver’s show was cancelled shortly into its second season and at one point reduced the chef to tears.

Giusti hopes to capture support from the wave of frustration over the quality of school food. This persists even after Michelle Obama targeted school lunches with her Let’s Move initiative, helping to reset standards in 2012 for the first time in 15 years to include more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables; low-fat milk dairy products; and less sodium and fat.

Giusti is optimistic because a lot of people want to help, including “chefs, dieticians, chefs in culinary school, people with policy backgrounds, parents, people who want to work for free,” he said to Lucky Peach. The main thing in need of change, he said, is mindset. As if on cue, after the Washington Post wrote a story about his plan everyone said the effort was doomed.

“I’m reading that Elon Musk landed a rocket and he’s talking about colonizing Mars,” he told Lucky Peach. “That’s a legitimate story, but improving school food is impossible? That’s a joke.”

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