School Lunch Revolutionary: Greg Christian

Last week you met Al Baylacq, a grocery retailer who goes above and beyond to help solve the school cafeteria crisis. This week you'll learn how Greg Christian turned his apathy into big-time action to change school lunches and his life.

From Selfish to Selfless

Many of us turn to healthier living once we have kids. Maybe we pay more for organic, plant a garden, or stop eating fast food. So when Chicago-area chef and author Greg Christian started feeding his family only organic foods, it wasn't exactly newsworthy. But what he did next was.

"My youngest kid was really sick with asthma," Christian says. "Basically the doctors couldn't help her. She was at the hospital every other week and in intensive care regularly. 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, I'd 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 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 Christian's philosophy of "Grow, Teach, Feed," which became the mantra of his Organic School Project. But he sensed there was a part yet to be realized. "I knew I was still missing something," he says. "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 unhealthy 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 Christian 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. Christian knew about Susanke—and didn't want to approach her. "I went to Arne Duncan with my project first because the lady that was in charge of the cafeterias was scary; she had been the boss for 37 years," he says. "So I said to 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, Christian 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," Christian continues. "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 Christian 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," Christian recounts. "Thirty-five! And I'm not talking about just average Chicago public schools; I'm talking about the Disney schools, the Charter schools, the famous schools, the schools the aldermen send their kids to, the progressive schools and the cutting-edge schools.

"After 35 I was about to give up. I was thinking that maybe it was just a crazy idea. 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 council.' 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," Christian recalls. "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."

Christian'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," Christian says. "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."

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, Christian did hit his mark. "By sixth grade, kids' palates are shot," he explains. "They're addicted to flavorings. 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, its first phase—the Organic School Project being hands-on in schools—came to an abrupt end when Sue Susanke, who turned out to be Christian'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 Christian had made his point: largely because of the publicity he'd generated, Chicago Public Schools set a goal to spend $2 million on local food to feed students.

Success of Involvement

"Getting kids to eat healthily is a process, and it's not going to happen just by putting salad bars in schools," Christian concludes. "These kids are eating unhealthy food at home, when they're on vacation, and 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!"

Christian hasn't stopped—far from it. He currently runs a consulting business helping people get local and healthy foods into school cafeterias around the country. To find out more, including how to implement a healthy food program into schools, visit www.beyondgreenpartners.com and www.organicschoolproject.org.