School Lunch Revolutionary: Al Baylacq

Part three in a special four-part NVL series looking at the movers and shakers who are taking on those nasty school lunches most of our kids are served, and bringing some surprising changes to the table.

Last week you learned of Chef Ann Cooper, who eschewed white-tablecloth restaurants to bring healthy foods to kids' lunch trays. This week you'll meet Al Baylacq, a grocery retailer who goes above and beyond to help solve the school cafeteria crisis.

A Unique Way to Give Back

Many parents today are clamoring for an improvement in their kids' school lunch programs. It's no surprise: lacking in nutrients and full of salt, fat, sugar and preservatives, school diets have been a contributing factor in the sharp rise of food-associated illnesses, such as diabetes, in the US.

There are numerous barriers to making the needed changes, however. School district budgets are at an all-time low. Cafeteria kitchens in schools are only prepared to heat meals, not cook them. And last but not least, kids won't eat unappealing food.

Al Baylacq, co-owner of Good Earth Natural Foods in Fairfax, California, encountered these and other problems when he and his business partner, Mark Squire, originally decided that fixing the school lunch problem would be a great way to give back to their community. "When I first started looking into it and how bad our standards and our foods were, it seemed like it was going to take ten years to make any changes," Baylacq recalls. "It was a real challenge, and there was no book I could open to find out how to do a school lunch program. Everything was in the public sector. There might have been a day when private businesses were running school lunches, but not to any great degree because there's just no money in it; it's about covering your costs."

Today, however, his organic school lunch program is a proven winner. "This is our tenth year, and it's paying for itself," Baylacq says. "It's pretty successful. We went into it, not with the idea of making money, but really to give back and invest in our community. We now understand what teachers, parents or even a business like ours is up against in making changes where they really need to be made in food."

Getting There

The first element that Baylacq found necessary was parent involvement. It was with the cooperation of parents that Good Earth was able to begin their school lunch initiative. "The one key aspect of the early success we had was that we partnered with four private schools," he continues. "We really were on the backs of parents who could afford to pay five bucks a day for their kid's lunch. I look back at that and it was a tremendous bonus to be involved with families who could really support the whole start of the operation."

But it isn't only paying for lunch that's entailed. A school lunch also requires volunteers to serve it, as schools just don't have the needed personnel for their cafeterias. "Back when food was prepared on-site in the cafeteria, you had a couple of people for the preparation and a janitor who cleaned up the cafeteria before and after. Those budgets have gone away. The mindset for the last 25 to 30 years has been "We can't afford to do this lunch thing anymore. Where are we going to cut?" They start cutting staff and before they know it they have one person. How much can one person do?

"So we needed volunteers. Now, within a specific district, there's a team of about 60 volunteers involved, and any given day there are 15 to 20 of them pulling off serving lunch."

Over time, Good Earth evolved the program and adapted it for public schools as well'which also requires parental support and volunteers.

The toughest route was selling schools from the lower economic strata'but they did it. "In the public system the biggest issue for business or any lunch program is to deal with the 'free' and 'reduced' population," Baylacq explains. "It's pretty considerable in a couple of the schools. In the largest district, Larkspur School District, out of a thousand kids I would say there are about 25 to 30 percent that are 'free' and 'reduced.' Our lunch price for those schools is $4.60, and the school is paying above and beyond what they're getting from the federal program."

Once economic barriers are solved within a school district, though, there is likely the toughest issue of all: the kids themselves and what they will eat.

"The clientele is as brutal as it gets in terms of kids' eating and pickiness of parents' views on what their kids should be served'what's edible and what's not," Baylacq relates. "We tried to be on the good side of the wheat flour and white sugar issue; but, to be frank, the younger population, unless they had been eating pretty healthy wholesome foods at home, were, at least in the early days, affronted by the fact that they were being asked to eat a whole-wheat pizza or whole-wheat pasta. It's a real stretch for many. After the first initial whole-wheat shock, we reverted to a mixed white and whole-wheat flour for our pizza dough. We immediately cut the whole-wheat pasta, which was just not going to fly, and went to an organic unbleached wheat, semolina flour pasta dough."

Once the bumps were traversed, however, both kids and parents were sold. "After the first couple of months the reputations grew and people realized they were getting a real quality kid-friendly lunch. Even the teachers at the schools became involved and started buying our lunches. Once the parents of a school got enough momentum, the school board would just get in line and decide to switch lunch programs."

The Good Earth Natural Foods store has a firm non-GMO standard, which is also a standard for all the food in their school lunch program.

Sustainability is a key component of their lunch program as well. "We do everything from scratch. The food is served in chafing dishes and about half our kids per day use a paper plate; the other half we worked with and sold folks on the idea of each kid being responsible for bringing his or her own flatware and fork, and the idea is growing." Baylacq also transports sustainably: all deliveries are made with vans that run on 40 percent biodiesel fuel.

Parent Driven

"I get calls all the time from parents from different school districts, asking how to start," Baylacq concludes. "I tell them that they have to pull their local parents together. If they don't have a consortium of support behind them I can't really get involved, because I know how much work it is."

Someday, perhaps, healthy school lunches will be mandated by law. But for now it's going to take healthy-minded parents literally stepping up to the plate.

To find out more about the Good Earth healthy school lunch program, visit www.goodearthorganiclunches.com