TLT Guest Blogger Justin Gagnon: Looking for the School Food “Silver Bullet”

[Ed Note:  Justin Gagnon is the CEO of Choicelunch, a school food catering service in the Bay Area.  We somehow “met” through The Lunch Tray and I was taken not only with Justin’s passionate commitment to providing school kids with healthy, delicious and sustainable meals, but also with his nuanced and clear-headed thinking about school food issues.  And it didn’t hurt that he’s also a great writer!  

He and I have discussed  privately in emails how hard it can be for any school food provider, whether a private catering service like Choicelunch or public schools participating in the National School Lunch Program, to serve many masters, i.e., parents and administrators with countless — and often competing — agendas.  I asked him if he’d share those thoughts in a guest blog post on TLT and am thrilled to be able to present it here today.]

Looking for the School Food “Silver Bullet”

by Justin Gagnon

This evening I had the pleasure of discussing school lunch with Amy Kafala of Two Angry Moms.  A local book store in the Bay Area was hosting her at a book signing.  Also in the audience was Dana Woldow, of SFUSD fame.  By any objective measure, there was a lot of school lunch reform “power” in that room, and the conversation was intelligent, insightful, and informed.  There was only one problem – everyone in that room was already on the same side.  It turns out that conversations around school food activism tend to draw, well, school food activists.

justin gagnon
Choicelunch CEO Justin Gagnon

There were some people in the community attending who were interested in hearing more about what they can do, and Amy is perhaps the perfect person to lead the charge in this regard.  Her work as an “Angry Mom” has mobilized thousands to get active, and continues to draw more people into the discussion.  But perhaps what troubles me most is that after eight years of building a healthy school lunch company virtually from scratch, I still find myself awake at night tossing and turning because I can’t seem to unearth that school lunch “silver bullet”.

Of everyone in that room tonight, I should, in theory, have it the easiest when it comes to making school lunch that everyone loves.  Many of the schools we serve are private schools, and the public districts we do serve have Free and Reduced rates below 10% [i.e, fewer than 10% of the kids qualify for free or reduced price lunch.]  Our price point is far higher than the typical school lunch (most of our full meals cost in the mid-$4 range), and as a result, we have more money to spend on ingredients and making meals from scratch.  Combine all of that with the fact that we’re in California, which is the epicenter of our nation’s produce growing, and you have all the ingredients for amazing school lunch.  A foodservice director working within the confines of the National School Lunch Program probably looks at a program like mine and thinks, “If we could charge those prices, we’d have a program everyone could get behind.” But as the guy standing on the greener grass and striving to make everyone happy, I can tell you it’s not all organic peaches and cream.

In fact, I often feel tortured by this industry.  No matter how hard we try, it’s impossible to please everyone.  On one hand, I’ve had parents refer to organics and tell me their kids don’t eat “that way” and tell me verbatim “get rid of all the healthy crap.”  On the other, I’ve had an admitted meat eater read us the riot act for describing local, organic, grass-fed beef as coming from “happy cows” (he guaranteed they were not happy as they marched to slaughter for the sake of school lunch).  I’ve even had a parent demand we serve Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and tell me that trans fats don’t matter because their child will “run them off on the playground anyway.”  No matter the demographics of the community – low-income or wealthy, private or public school, ethnically diverse or homogenous – there simply isn’t a consensus of what parents want from school lunch.

But the saddest thing about ALL of this is that food isn’t a celebration anymore.  It’s a contentious, heated battle with everyone arming themselves with different weapons and very different agendas.  Junk foodies, vegans, “green team” waste hawks, ABF/GMO-free/organic proponents, locavores, and the allergen-impacted are all demanding you meet the needs of their family, and the majority of parents are sitting there going “I just want something wholesome that my kid enjoys.”   The fact is, it is impossible to please everyone, and school food is a near thankless gig for the conscientious.

Food, and school food specifically, is not unlike many of the other challenges facing this country.  It’s a multi-faceted issue fraught with complexities.  And since everyone eats, it’s an issue that everyone has an opinion on.  But there is no right or wrong, black or white, or right or left when it comes to food.  The way I see it may be completely different than the way you see it, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I n fact, it is the diversity of perspective that allows for an even more richer discussion to take place.

If there’s one takeaway I would have for TLT readers, it would be to start talking.  Start talking to schools, start talking to foodservice directors and employees, but most importantly, start talking to other parents.  Don’t just talk though.  After you start talking, just listen.  Do they share your concerns?  Is there something in their perspective that you haven’t thought about?  Do they agree with your position on what should be done in your community?  Are there things happening that you didn’t even know about that are moving the tide in the right direction?  chances are you’ll find someone in your community or in the foodservice operation itself who is passionate and dedicated to the cause and has already picked up the banner.”

* * *

I want to thank Justin Gagnon for sharing his thoughts on today’s Lunch Tray.  Early on I published a similar post from another person “behind the lunch line,” TLT’s anonymous school food professional whom I refer to as “Wilma.”  Though Wilma works in a public school district rather than a private catering service, I think you’ll see that she and Justin share many of the same challenges. 

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  1. Maggie says

    Many true words here….we all eat, so there are indeed many strong opinions about our beliefs and why we might think we know what others should eat as well.

    I sometimes feel a bit uncomfortable when the discussion turns to students who do receive meals for free…perhaps the meals at school are their main source of food. Isn’t it a bit…what would be a good word…bold…for “us” to say what “they” should get and fall back on the phrase “if they are hungry, they will eat it”. Education and support would be the best, of course. But, without that, should be providing familiar foods?

    I know, I’ve wandered off track a bit. The points that Justin makes are all so very valid. I’m pretty sure it’s not possible to please everyone 100% unless we are cooking to order. I’ve made a somewhat sarcastic comment in the past that maybe each child to have some sort of card to give us daily to explain exactly what they should/shouldn’t eat and their feeding plan – “must take vegetables, and take one bite, but permitted to spit it out if they wish”.

    We can’t stop trying, I know, but coming to rest somewhere with a program that can continue to function and operate and provide the best food we can to the most students who need it…it seems to be a tall order.

  2. Sherry says

    I agree that it is impossible to please everyone when the school lunch audience is so large and diverse; however, what is important is that people are now debating and discussing school lunch, and positive change has been set in motion. There is no stopping the momentum now.

    The potential for change is happening not just in the private school sector, but in the public school arena. The Los Angeles Unified School District is the second largest school district in the nation and and one where 80% of the children qualify for free or reduced priced breakfast and lunch. If change can take root here, it is possible anywhere. According to an August Los Angeles Times article, the district is beginning to incorporate more locally grown produce into the daily menu. Corn dogs, and canned fruit and vegetables are being discontinued. Make way for the greek salad and roast chicken. Wow! What an incredible positive change! Whether or not the chicken is organic? Is that up for debate yet at the district? I am sure it is only a matter of time, but for me, I am just thrilled that these students will be eating some real food, organic or not!

    So, Justin, I support you in your passionate efforts and commend you on the headway you have made with your company. Let’s keep the school lunch discussion going, whether or not all of us agree on everything on the table.


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