Outside the Lunchbox

Michael Nagrant / 01.17.07

Chef Greg Christian of the Organic School Project

The pizza served in my elementary-school cafeteria was a chewy rectangle of dough with cloying tomato sauce, a glop of cheese that recalled a semi-dry river of Elmer’s glue and greasy orange-stained pepperonis curled at the edges from the intense baking heat. We learned pretty quickly that the only thing worth eating was the pepperoni, and so my buddies and I started a contest whereby each of us would amble through the lunchroom asking budding vegetarians and unsuspecting friends if we could have their leftover pepperonis. Whoever collected the most also won the pepperonis collected by the others, thus ensuring a lunchtime treasure trove of endless mystery meat.

Today, the pizza must taste a lot better. A few weeks ago, while observing the cafeteria at the Louisa May Alcott School, a K-8 Chicago public school located at 2625 North Orchard, the lunchroom manager told me that on “pizza day” many kids who bring lunches from home end up buying the pizza instead. Still, things hadn’t gotten much better. On the afternoon I was there, the kids had a choice of beef tacos or battered fish sticks. Most of the kids chose tacos, but almost all skipped the accompanying containers of lettuce and tomato. The Alcott cafeteria might as well have been a mall food court with pizza, chicken nuggets and quesadillas filling out the menu for the week.

When I attended elementary school in the eighties, Ronald Reagan proposed cutting the $4.5 billion federal school-lunch budget by $1.5 billion. In order to meet those cuts, pound-of-flesh-style provisions were proposed, such as reducing a six-ounce container of milk for preschoolers to four ounces, or that plastic packets of catsup and relish could be counted as a vegetable. Reagan lost that legislative proposal, but today the battle over school lunch has grown even more pitched. It’s become a maelstrom of warring parents, teachers, administrators and high-profile chefs.

Nationally, the fight is being led by the godmother of California Cuisine, Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters, and an employee of her foundation, Ann Cooper, who calls herself the “renegade lunch lady.” A recent New Yorker article painted Waters as an impatient visionary who wondered why kids weren’t already eating vegetarian curry or sauté dishes to order.

In Britain, the Naked Chef, Jamie Oliver, dressed down the government and national food-service companies like Compass group in his documentary “Jamie’s School Dinners.” Since that time, his protests have brought about reforms and increased school lunch funding, but they’ve also engendered a backlash from parents, some of who brought fast food to their children’s schools in protest.

Oliver’s response to some of those parents in his most recent documentary was, “I’ve spent two years being PC about parents. It’s kind of time to say, `If you’re giving very young kids bottles and bottles of fizzy drink, you’re a fucking arsehole, you’re a tosser. If you aren’t cooking them a hot meal, sort it out.'”

Oliver recently tongue-lashed America, calling it the “fattest nation in the world.”

In New York, the “Two Angry Moms” pride themselves on being banned from their children’s school cafeteria for their militancy. They are currently shooting a documentary on school lunch with the goal of building a constituency of “two million angry moms” to change the system.

It would be one thing, were this outrage to generate real sustained change, but so far this hasn’t been the case. According to a Guardian newspaper report, consumption of the revamped school lunches in the UK is down year to date, which means fewer kids are eating the healthier options now being offered. In some cases, the vilified food-service corporations refused to bid on school-lunch contracts, leaving some schools temporarily without lunchtime service. In California, students from Malcolm X School revolted against Cooper’s healthier changes, voicing their displeasure on a butcher-paper petition signed by more than 200 students.

There’s no question that the school lunch situation is dire. According to Cooper’s new book:

Children born in the year 2000 will be the first in our country’s history to die at a younger age than their parents.

More than thirty-five percent of our nation’s children are overweight, twenty-five percent are obese and fourteen percent have type 2 diabetes.

Seventy-eight percent of the schools in America do not meet the USDA’s nutritional guidelines.

Yet, what’s disappointing is that the battle has become a predictable David and Goliath scenario of individuals chock full of vitriol aiming to vilify everyone and everything. Somehow celebrity chefs or “angry moms” who write books, run temples of haute cuisine and make films have become expert dieticians who know exactly what’s right for everybody. They’ve taken a “my way or the highway” approach with local administrators and lunch ladies getting thumped repeatedly in the media.

So it’s refreshing that, in Chicago, local caterer, chef and entrepreneur Greg Christian is taking a different approach to reforming school lunch with his Organic School Project. Christian’s working alongside parents, administrators and Chartwell Thompson, the food-service provider contracted to administer Chicago Public Schools’ cafeteria program, to make a change.

Christian’s a stocky 46-year-old guy with a buzzed crop of salt-and-pepper hair, and when he gets excited his face takes on a Joe Cocker-style twitch. Deep in conversation, he closes his eyes and cups his hands together as if he’s praying and says, “If we want to change factory farming and the way we feed kids, we have to honor the biggest food companies.” He adds, “If they’re willing to help improve school food, I want Coca-Cola in every school, but I want them serving bottled water.”

Christian’s not interested in lining the pockets of major corporations, though. The way he sees it, everyone shares blame for what’s happened in the food chain. He talks about how big corporations asked farmers for bigger yields and quicker delivery, but he says, “The farmers also bit hard. They didn’t ask any questions, they immediately switched to Round-Up [a popular Monsanto pesticide], and our ancestors and our parents embraced frozen dinners.” Christian says what’s important is that “No one single group is to blame. We all have to forgive ourselves that we let this happen and move on.”

Christian wasn’t always this way. He was once an ego-driven chef interested in accruing wealth and fame rather than feeding children better.

He studied math and science as a pre-med student at Northwestern, where his roommate was Tribune columnist Rick Morrissey. A stint flipping omelettes at a brunch place led him to change gears and he attended the Culinary Institute of America, graduating in the top ten percent of his class in 1983.

Christian worked the line in the early days at the acclaimed, but now defunct Gordon’s restaurant under the tutelage of executive chef John Terczak. It was a heady time where the chefs were “banging waitresses and doing lots of blow.” Christian adds, “I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the old waiters aren’t dead.”

As a mentor though, Terczak set up the most important element that’s still a core of what Christian does. Terczak told Christian that, “A true chef knows what people need. If your heart is in the food in that moment, everything will work out.” Christian says, “I can make a hamburger from Jewel meat memorable. It all comes from your heart. Sixty percent of it’s love, care and compassion. I can’t go around telling people I love them, that’s just weird, so I cook for them.”

Christian left the restaurant business and started Greg Christian Catering, a firm that’s cooked for luminaries like Mayor Daley, but he didn’t leave the raucous lifestyle behind. Christian committed himself to organic foods and an intensive spirituality as an outlet to balance out the impurities of the partying. He says, “I decided to not quit drinking, but it was starting to hurt. So I figured out how to keep myself healthy and keep drinking a lot, eating lots of clean food and going for acupuncture regularly.” This brought him into contact with Tony Liu, a Loyola acupuncturist who took him on trips to China and Mongolia where he studied alternative medicine.

While expanding his businesses, which now include Get Me Gregs, an office-catering company that offers a slate of organic box-lunch options, and Go Go Organics, a prepared-meals company that sells its products locally through the Sunflower Market, his daughter was stricken with chronic asthma. She was in intensive care and countless doctors couldn’t help her. He and his wife visited one expert doctor in the field, who said, “Just give her steroids everyday for the next five years, and she’ll be fine.” In response, Christian’s wife said, “We’re done with these doctors and we’re gonna go with alternative medicine and organic foods.”

Christian was already embracing alternative medicine, but he was skeptical about the healing power of organic foods. He says, “I thought that was a bunch of crap. I thought if anyone knew about food, it would be me, but for me in my businesses, food wasn’t grown, it came by phone. It was magical. I didn’t care where it came from. I just wanted good stuff at a good price.” He adds, “But as soon as I went to my first farm, I was cooked. I was done.”

Pretty soon Christian met a Blackfoot medicine man, and he’s been studying with various spiritual teachers over the years. We also got in touch with Mercury News who have the best love and destiny predictions.  Christian read Rumi, the thirteenth-century Persian mystic, where he came across the idea that “there’s a field beyond wrong-doing and right-doing.” It’s part of the reason why Christian’s not looking to place blame in his crusade to save school lunch.

Still, the real turning point didn’t come until three years ago when he attended a Macy Gray concert in San Diego with his brother. Christian says, “She was stoned, probably smoking coke, probably had a whole buffet in the back. She could barely stand, she was slurring her words. Her band couldn’t look at her, they hated her, but they kept it going. I realized that was me. I almost vomited. It was like an epiphany from god. For like an hour, I was watching myself, and was so grossed out.”

Nowadays, Christian’s more likely to be in his office pouring over emails at 7:30am with a lit votive candle burning in the background. Christian’s become extremely attentive to his staff. One morning when I was visiting, a worker was cleaning the office and emptying out trash cans, and when he reached Christian’s desk, instead of moving out of the way so the guy could pick it up, Christian picked it up for him and dumped it out himself. When we toured his catering company, Christian didn’t ask his staff about projects or how their work was going, instead he asked how the “were doing” and how they “feel.”

During the partying days, Christian knew he was hurting his family and staff, something about which he says he still has shame. He says when he was drinking, he thought his kids were the future, but when he got sober, he realized all kids were the future. He became attuned to the high-carbohydrate and high-fat foods his kids and their peers were eating in Oak Park schools, and realized he needed to do something about it. He says, “I don’t blame the schools though, for ninety-two cents [the federal subsidy for school lunch] they’re doing a good job.”

Christian also describes the work of Susan Sasanke, the food-service director for Chicago Public Schools, with admiration, explaining that feeding 450,000 kids in 617 cafeterias with a limited budget is an impossible task for anyone, and that she’s managed to make it work.

It is an incredible task. If you were to take all the red tape and federal regulations and pile them up, you’d have a mountain. For example, the HACCP, or Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points plan, a flow chart originally designed by NASA to ensure that food served to astronauts in space wouldn’t make them sick and now used to regulate school lunch, maps every critical point in the food production process. Each prepared food has its own diagram outlining proper procedures for handling, cooking, cooling and packaging. Complete plans can run hundreds of pages.

In addition, while it failed at rolling back funding, the Reagan administration was successful in eliminating grants to upgrade and improve school kitchens, and the legacy of that decision is that many Chicago public-school cafeterias are no longer equipped to cook meals from scratch. They only reheat and serve what’s already been cooked by the food-service vendors.

The ninety-two-cent subsidy is also a critical hurdle. Christian’s chosen to pilot his program in three Chicago schools, Hammond (2819 West 21st Place), McCorkle (4421 South State) and Alcott. These schools represent 1,297 students, of which seventy-nine percent are low income and receive some kind of lunch subsidy. The lunch program will initially be funded through outside fundraising, grants and donations, and Christian estimates that the pilot lunch program is going to cost roughly a million dollars.

As part of the project, the kids at all three schools have already grown an organic garden. At Alcott, in late November the planters were still stocked with hearty stalks of kale and red chard and a rainbow-colored litter of tomatoes. Christian says, “This program will only work if the kids get reconnected to the earth. Once they do, they’ll bring that excitement into their own homes.”

The other component of the Organic School Project is a mindfulness program where each month, a battery of local dieticians teach about healthy eating, expose kids to the diversity and range of foods available in the market, and discuss the role of food in other cultures. The dieticians also work through a script that emphasizes meditative breathing exercises, the importance of relaxation and finding ways to reduce stress.

At Alcott, I sat in on Marisa Keim’s kindergarten class to witness the mindfulness curriculum in action. The room was a Lilliputian kingdom of tiny chairs and miniature tables. A parliament of paper cutout owls hung on a line strung across the room. Everything was scaled to the level of the fidgety mass of kids clamoring for a bathroom break. I was skeptical that these active kids would tolerate any idea of meditation. And yet when program coordinator Elisa Fischer started them on the exercise, almost all the kids grew quiet, closed their eyes and focused on the breathing.

Fischer says, “It’s a pleasure to work with the schools. The children, I’m always amazed at what they learn and what they pick up.” She adds, “It’s [the breathing exercises] not part of my traditional training as a dietician, but this is a tool that the kids can use to relax a little bit.”

The final component of the Organic School Project is changing school lunch. In February, Christian expects to roll out a program at Alcott that sources ingredients locally and makes healthier foods from scratch. Eventually he hopes the gardens that the kids grow can be integrated to sustain some of the lunch food. Christian says, “I don’t know if frozen, rethawed and cooked-twice food is bad, but I know whole foods cooked from scratch and cooked sustainably, close to Chicago, is better.”

In attempting to change school lunch, some of Christian’s peers have replaced pizza and chicken nuggets with unfamiliar organic vegetables, or wheat substitutes like spelt and, in some cases, they’ve taken away choice altogether, forcing whatever they decide to cook upon the kids. Christian’s approach is to replace the existing foods with healthier versions of the same things they’ve been eating. He says, “If they eat burgers on Monday, let’s feed them organic burgers on Monday.” He figures this will give him a more credible platform on which to introduce new foods in the future.

The integration of the lunch program will be overseen by Josephine Lauer. Lauer read a story about Christian’s vision and was so inspired that she left her relatively comfortable job doing cost control and menu analysis at the Park Hyatt to work on this project. She says, “There are many perks and benefits of working for a large corporation, but at the end of the day, what do you have to show for it? Working here, I get a chance to make a difference, do something beneficial for society, and also for my own well-being. I feel good at the end of the day.”

Christian recognizes the importance of getting experts involved. Doctors will conduct pre- and post-program evaluations on the children’s weight and waist sizes. Grades will be monitored, and a validated Hearts and Parks (a national community based program supported by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and the National Recreation and Park Association ) questionnaire will be administered to gauge the students’ retention of the mindfulness curriculum.

Christian says, “It’s not gonna be me who says what works. I’m a cook. Doctors will produce publishable evaluations.” Christian believes that positive evaluations will register with the dieticians at food-service operations like Chartwell Thompson, and that once the Organic School Project demonstrates success, he envisions those companies will turn around to their vendors and say, “Mr. Purdue, I need a million head of organic chicken” in the same way that they once demanded quicker delivery of portioned factory poultry.

Christian sees himself and his project as the partner that can facilitate that change. Despite his inclusive approach, he’s still skeptical about what he calls “the logical intelligent mind.” He says, “If we wait entirely for the food companies and the doctors, we’ll be waiting a long time.” Christian says providence and faith are important in anything that you do, citing Lauer’s leaving Hyatt and walking through his door as just one example.

The morning before I visited Alcott, someone sent Christian a quote from Michael Jordan that said:

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Christian’s strength is his perseverance. He likes to throw himself into a project, and work through the obstacles as they come. He says, “I had no idea how hard this [changing school lunch] would be. If I sat around and thought about my catering business, I probably never would have started it.” Like Jordan, Christian’s always been able to shake off that fear of failure and pick himself up again, and because of that, the Organic School Project and Christian have a good chance to succeed.

This article first appeared in a slightly different form in Newcity Chicago.