Stephen Jardine: How do you solve a problem like school dinners?

A healthy meal can't be nutritious if no-one actually eats it, says Stephen Jardine
Healthy food is available in all schools but often children can find it unappetising. Picture: Julie HowdenHealthy food is available in all schools but often children can find it unappetising. Picture: Julie Howden
Healthy food is available in all schools but often children can find it unappetising. Picture: Julie Howden

How does the Head Chef of the world’s best restaurant follow that? After three years running the kitchen at Noma in Copenhagen, Daniel Giusti might have been forgiven for choosing something rewarding yet cushy. Perhaps private chef on a superyacht or executive chef at Caribbean resort?

Instead the 31-year-old has headed home to the United States to cook school meals. On the surface that sounds like a crazy career move. But if Noma did things with food no other restaurant had thought about, then the school canteen is actually the natural next step – the final frontier many have approached but no one has conquered.

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“School food is a problem people have been trying to solve for decades,” said Giusti. “The truth is, everything can be better”.

That’s what led him to quit $300 lunches for the foodie elite in Copenhagen to feed schoolchildren for just $3 in public schools across the New London district of in Connecticut.

At the core of the project is a commitment to put a full time chef in each school who will create menus, train staff and redesign what is on offer. That approach starts with the basics. Giusti has ditched the prison style plastic trays and introduced proper plates. Likewise the plastic cartons for sandwiches have been replaced with parchment and checkered deli style wrapping.

Then there is the food itself. Previously much of it was frozen or tinned. Now everything is made fresh daily.

Early menus featured soups, ravioli, turkey meatballs and pasta and barbeque chicken pizza, all served with fruit. It all meets the nutritional guidelines but that wasn’t the main priority.

“Every conference you go to, that’s all they talk about: nutrition, nutrition, nutrition. The fact of the matter is, no one eats the food. So the food can’t be nutritious if no one eats the food,” said Giusti.

Instead his goal from the very beginning was to make the food taste so good that the children actually wanted to eat it. Early indicators on that score couldn’t really be more remarkable with 93 per cent of children now choosing school meals.

So what’s the catch? Well the finances are challenging. Finding the cash for a chef in every school is beyond the stretch of the existing funding so the Target chain of convenience stores have stepped in to sponsor the programme. For some that would be a step too far but if it allows a radical overhaul of school food to the point where 9 out of 10 children are opting in, is it really such a problem ?

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From Nike schoolbags to Clarks shoes, brands are a fact of life in schools and as long as the sponsor isn’t a fast food chain or a sugary drink manufacturer, using their cash to support improvements to the school meal service makes perfect sense.

But why go to all this bother? After all, those of us brought up on sausage roll, beans and chips in the school canteen are still around to tell the tale so why do we need top chefs?

Daniel Giusti’s view is that children deserve something better. If we really want the next generation growing up with a positive attitude to proper food and cooking that process has to begin at school. Even if home life is challenging, at school they have the certainty of one hot and healthy meal a day made with love and care. If we don’t care about that and fixate on nutrition at the expense of flavour, kids will simply drift away to the local takeaway.

The Connecticut experiment is still in the early stages and many chefs have gone down this road before but Daniel Giusti’s simple approach of treating the canteen like a restaurant rather than a fuel station has already attracted a lot of interest on both side of the Atlantic and we’d be wise to keep watching.