Chef Greg Christian: Saving School Lunches—with an Attitude

Chef Greg Christian: Saving School Lunches—with an Attitude

Greg Christian is a highly successful Chicago-area chef, author, consultant and entrepreneur. He saw a grave problem—that kids were getting low-nutrition, high-fat, high-sugar lunches every day at school. He decided to do something about it, and made a great impact. He’s now launching full-force into the next stage of his Organic School Project, of which he is the founder and executive director.

While highly laudable, this in itself is not such a unique story—witness the activities of Alice Waters, Chef Ann Cooper, Jamie Oliver and Dr. Susan Rubin, to name a few. Yet on a closer look, his approach is extremely unusual, with a healthy dose of down-to-earth city attitude and even spirituality thrown in. It is one that could teach us all a lesson or two.

The first distinctive aspect is how the project came about in the first place. “My youngest kid was really sick with asthma,” Greg told Natural Vitality Kids. “Basically the doctors couldn’t help her. She was every other week at the hospital and in intensive care regularly. My wife’s mom, who was the primary caretaker, said, ‘We’re losing this battle. We’re going to start doing alternative medicine and we’re going to start eating only organic food.’ So we began feeding her all-organic food, and she got better; not cured, but no more hospital ever since then. We were eating organic at home and sending the kids to school with all-organic lunches, and my oldest would come home all the time and say, ‘Dad, you wouldn’t believe what the other kids ate at school!’ And the truth was I didn’t really care. I didn’t say that to my kids, but my children were covered; they were eating their organic food, the youngest wasn’t going to the hospital anymore, and we were cool.

“I stopped drinking about nine years ago and started meditating and contemplating a lot, and I realized that I actually did care what other kids ate at school. For a long time, being a selfish narcissistic person, I thought of my two children as the future of the world. Then I realized in soberness that all the children are the future of the world. So I began thinking, ‘How can I do this?’

“It actually came to me in my meditation room that kids have to grow food, kids have to learn about food all year—food in culture, food in nutrition, food in the environment—not nutrition in a week, which is what it currently is in America. They have to become involved with cleaner food, more food made from scratch, more local food, and more organic food over time.”

This brought about Greg’s philosophy of “Grow, Teach, Feed,” which became the mantra of the Organic School Project. But Greg sensed there was a part yet to be realized. “I knew I was still missing something,” he said. “I had this feeling for months. One day it hit me in meditation: Honor all. This means respect the current system, honor and bless the current system, forgive the current system. This does not mean support the current system with money; it does not mean you have to like the current system—but honor and respect it.

“The current system will feed five billion meals a year in America. No other country has that system, so we’re really lucky. Now, are we feeding kids dog food? You bet. But the system is not an afterthought. In other places, people would give their lives if they knew their children had this.”

Getting Started

As Greg began, he first approached the then CEO of Chicago Public Schools (now US Secretary of Education), Arne Duncan. Duncan gave him the green light to approach Sue Susanke, the food service director for the school system. Greg knew about Susanke—and didn’t want to go near her. “I went to Arne Duncan with my project first because the lady that was in charge of the cafeterias was scary,” Greg said. “She had been the boss for 37 years, and if Saturday Night Live was going to make fun of a lunch lady, she was it. I was afraid of her. I said to Arne Duncan, ‘Listen, you’ve got to tell her what to do because she’s not going to let me do this.’ And he responded, ‘No, no, no, I’m not getting involved. If she doesn’t see you and take your project, then you can come back to me.’”

So, armed with a business plan, Greg timidly made his approach. And . . . his every expectation was thrown right out the window.

“I’m a fancy cook, have worked at fancy restaurants in New York City and then high-end catering,” Greg continued. “I can think quickly and solve things. So when I walked into that office, I already had plan B, C and D, in case she said no. Everybody had told me she was this scary lunch lady, but I had never met her. They had said, ‘Oh my God, you’re going to meet her? Good luck with that! She’ll eat you for lunch! She hates guys like you!’ So I came in and sat down, feeling very nervous.

“The first thing out of this lady’s mouth was, `I look forward to being your partner on this project.’ I was stunned! I said, ‘You don’t know what it is yet!’ I had sent her nothing ahead of time. She replied, ‘I know. Now you can tell me what it is.’ I started to cry—I literally burst into tears. So I cleaned myself up and then I told her about the Organic School Project. Her response was, ‘Great! We’re going to get you a subcontract with Chartwell’s [the third-party food service provider for the school system] and you’re going to do your thing.’ She explained to me all the rules that I had to follow. I’m like, ‘No problem; I’m going to follow them.’ It was a miracle, and I attribute the miracle to what I said earlier about honoring all.”

Getting into the Schools

Sue Susanke then gave Greg the go-ahead to pitch his program directly to schools. Unlike his encounter with the ‘scary lunch lady,’ however, this didn’t go so well at first.

“I went to 35 schools and they all said no to me,” Greg recounted. “Thirty-five! And I’m not talking about just average Chicago public schools; I’m talking about the Disney schools and the Charter schools and the famous schools and the schools that the aldermen send their kids to and the progressive schools and the cutting-edge schools.

“After 35 schools, I was about to give up. I was thinking that maybe it was just a crazy idea. Just then a parent from another school called me, because I was getting a lot of press at the time. The parent asked if I had room for one more school! They had no idea that I didn’t have any. I went to the meeting and the principal said, ‘We’d love to have you; I’ve talked to the parents and the local school counsel.’ I had my school. It was called Alcott Elementary School, Lincoln Park.”

Organic School Project in Action

Once in with the first school, several more opened up, and it became a full-on operation for the next three years.

“I put vegetable gardens in 10 schools,” Greg recalled. “Into 3 schools I dropped full-time nutrition, food and culture, and environmental teachers. And then there’s the one school I actually fed for 16 months. I wrote a food policy—it’s on the Organic School Project website. It’s the Cadillac food policy for any school anywhere in America, and I fed the children by following that policy exactly.”

Greg’s project was met with different reactions from different groups. Of course, to begin with, he had to deal with the school staff. “The school staff were very hesitant the whole time,” Greg said. “Talk about averse to change—they didn’t want to deal with that at all. A few champions bubbled up in every school, and they were a blessing.”

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He met with differing reactions from parents as well. “In one school that we were in, the parents were virtually nonexistent participants at their kids’ school, period. In another, though, many of the parents were overweight along with the kids, and they were just scared. ‘We don’t know what to do—we’re fat, our kids are fat, and we used to all not be fat when we were back in our home country.’ They were engaged.”

Then, of course, there were the children—who, after all, are the focus of the whole issue. In this group, Greg did hit his mark. “By sixth grade, kids’ palates are shot,” Greg explained. “They’re addicted to flavorings. I’m convinced that, just as the cigarette companies finally got busted for putting chemicals in cigarettes that were way more addicting than tobacco, it’s the same with food. I can’t prove it, but I’ve been saying it for years and I know it’s true.

“So, what that means is they have to garden a little more, they have to learn a little more about food, and it’s going to take a bit more time. I’ll give you an example: The first quarter of the school year in the school that we fed, ratatouille was on the menu once a week. Ratatouille is chopped-up eggplant, zucchini and mushrooms, with a little tomato, onion and garlic. No one ate much of it at all. But by the fifth week, we ran out early! And I’ll never forget: one of my staff, Josephine, called me from the cafeteria and said, ‘We’re out of ratatouille!’ And we were both just blown away. I mean, in five weeks we went from serving none to running out.”

The project was, in many ways, a howling success. But interestingly, the first phase of the project—the Organic School Project being hands-on in schools—came to an abrupt end when Sue Susanke, who turned out to be Greg’s biggest champion, retired. “The lady who inherited me and that project said, ‘No more pilot projects in cafeterias in Chicago public schools.’ I fed the school in the last third of the year; then she told me that I had to serve more hot dogs, hamburgers and pizza. There was no really good reason for that, but that’s what she said. I replied, ‘No, I’m not going to do that,’ and I ended up pulling out.”

But Greg had made his point: this year, largely because of the publicity he generated, Chicago Public Schools has a goal to spend two million dollars on local food to feed students.

The Next Phase

Greg hasn’t stopped—far from it. He is now well into phase 2 of the Organic School Project, putting to work all he has learned from phase 1. “I’m now just finishing—and I’ll have the hard copies in my hand very soon—the first set of the Grow Teach Feed Collection,” he said. “It’s three different books in one. The Grow manual is how to put a garden in a school anywhere in America, with a curriculum around the garden, first through eighth grade. The Teach section is about 25 lessons, for the same grade levels, on food and nutrition, food and culture, and food and the environment. Then the Feed handbook is 209 recipes for school districts, with pictures. It is designed to be sold to schools and districts.” Greg also has plans to eventually issue a Grow Teach Feed book for parents as well.

The other half of phase 2 is obtaining funding to build economically sustainable farm-to-school models. “What I mean by that is I’m confident I can put a farm in any town in America to grow food, partially by the kids in the schools and partially by employing some people, and get that food into the cafeteria and have it pay for itself. I’m going to use their current system of vendors to help so that they’re not cut out of the deal. So, if the produce guy brings a bag of carrots when the school calls for a bag of carrots, they’re still going to bring the bag of carrots, but it’s not going to be from California; it’ll be from that local farm.”

The Success of Involvement

Greg has seen with his own eyes what happens when you combine education about food with the food itself—and he concluded with a statement of why this is so important.

“Getting kids to eat healthily is a process, and it’s not going to happen just by putting salad bars in schools. These kids are eating dog food at home, dog food when they’re on vacation, dog food when they’re in the car. There has to be a whole education around it; they have to connect to Mother Earth through the garden. Maybe an easier way to say it is ‘connecting to their food source.’ But it’s really a deep connection to Mother Earth. When they connect to Mother Earth—and it happens pretty easily when they grow food—bam! You see the light bulb. They plant the little tomato seed in their class in April, and they weed and they water; then they pick that tomato, and you should see them!

“One of the things that has fallen away in our culture is community. And one of the main reasons community has fallen away is because we are not bearing witness. When I was a kid and there was a fire, we didn’t turn on the news; we got on our bicycles and followed the truck, and we watched the fire! Bearing witness to food is critical to being connected with food, being connected with Mother Earth. When bearing witness to food being grown and raised disappears, you disconnect. If bearing witness disappears in general, the community falls apart.

“Does bearing witness mean they have to be on a farm and milking cows? No. Do they have to plant a tomato and pick a tomato? Yes. Do they have to have a little basil plant in their home? Yes, something. ‘Mom, I’m going to pick a little parsley and throw it in the pasta.’”

For more information and the latest news on the Organic School Project, including specific statistics on its success with children, visit www.organicschoolproject.org.