Redesigning an Old Recipe: The School Lunch
April 14, 2023
Written by JEFF GREENWALD
Stereotypical school lunch fare (think fish sticks and frozen “pizza”) has been the butt of jokes for decades. It’s an industry ripe for change, and Chef Joan Gallagher is at the vanguard — blending culinary expertise with fresh, healthy, handmade food, and nutritional education — to transform the way students eat.
photo by Jeff Greenwald
On a nippy Thursday morning, in the 800-square-foot kitchen of Nourish You in Emeryville, CA, Joan Gallagher—known affectionately as “Chef Joan”—stirs a cauldron of marinara sauce. To a sixth-grader’s eye, it looks like familiar tomato-based fare. But within the sauce (which will feature in today’s school lunch lasagna), Chef Joan has slyly hidden a cornucopia of healthy ingredients: “two kinds of squash, carrots, onion, celery, mushroom, and eggplant.”
Why is this craftiness needed? Why not just serve the kids stir-fried broccoli, and kale salad? If you’re a parent, you know the answer: Kids are notoriously picky eaters, and stick to familiar tastes and textures. Highly processed foods have become school lunch staples, even if more balanced meals are served at home.
While some schools and school districts have begun to focus on better nutrition, many still serve meals loaded with salt, sugar, and saturated fats. In response, the USDA recently proposed new guidelines for school breakfasts and lunches. These include reducing the amount of sugar in breakfast cereals, yogurts, and desserts; lowering the sodium content in all school meals; allowing nuts and seeds to stand in for the meat (or meat substitute) component in all child nutrition programs; and making it easier for school lunch program operators to buy locally grown and produced foods. The new standards will begin in the fall of 2024.
It takes people with training in the culinary arts to prepare something that tastes good, and make it nutritious.”
“The problem is, they’re still feeding kids a ridiculous amount of low quality, processed food,” says Joan, who worked in the science department of the USDA. “Yes, it may have less sugar and sodium. It’s great that they’re reducing the numbers.” But the real problem, she says, is how those changes are implemented: “It takes people with training in the culinary arts to prepare something that tastes good, and make it nutritious.”
Bringing healthy food to children in grades K-12 is a fantastic idea; it’s also a relatively new one. One of the pioneers was the Edible Schoolyard Project in Berkeley, CA, launched in 1995 by activist and Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters. In the intervening years, school districts all over the country—including Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Miami—have been abandoning fish sticks, tater tots, and frozen pizza in favor of more appealing and nourishing lunches.
It’s a huge undertaking; in California, the Oakland Unified School District alone serves about 20,000 meals a day. But sometimes, a movement can be summarized by one person—someone who takes hold of an industry, and turns it into a craft. For Chef Joan, her “signature sneaks” have the elan of a magic trick. “Eggplant is an often-maligned vegetable,” she says. “But it is such a luscious, sweet, beautiful thing.” Puréed into her sauce, it’s unrecognizable—“it gives you a wonderful, velvety mouthfeel and sweetness.”
Her techniques also boost the dish’s nutritional value. “We’re increasing the fiber and other nutrients. But the big one is, we’re eliminating saturated fat.” Between the layers of marinara and pasta, Joan ladles a layer of ricotta, Parmesan, egg, and plenty of spinach. “So they’re getting more iron, as well as vitamin B nutrients.”
Through the mid-1980s and early 90s, Gallagher worked in electrodiagnostics at San Francisco’s Letterman Hospital, and physiology at the USDA’s Human Nutritional Research Center. Her professional focus tightened after 1994, when she graduated from the California Culinary Academy. She did her “externship” at a Michelin-rated Alsatian restaurant in France before returning to the Bay Area. “Relais de la Poste was all about local and fine dining,” she reflects, “while working at San Francisco’s Palace Hotel taught me about large-scale cooking execution.”
By 2007, Gallagher was running the production kitchen for the Berkeley Unified School District. It was a big responsibility. “We prepared three to four thousand meals a day, sending them to sixteen sites.” In addition, she taught a weekly class with the Edible Schoolyard Project.
Today, as the director of Nourish You (launched in 2011), Joan—with a staff of three—prepares about 250 hot school lunches every morning. The meals are served onsite, catering-style.
All of Joan’s school lunch recipes, from burritos to chicken tikka masala, require culinary craftsmanship, disguising healthy servings of vegetables like bell peppers, carrots, caramelized onions, and kale. The toppings on her pizzas (traditional, pesto, gluten-free, and vegan) might conceal spinach, mushrooms, and butternut squash. Currently, her meals are served at the East Bay School for Boys, and the two campuses of Black Pine Circle School. An additional 500 meals a week are prepared for Friday delivery to the Emeryville Citizens Assistance Program (ECAP), where they are distributed to those in need. During the summers, Joan caters for the Cazadero Performing Arts Family Camp, a multigenerational camp that has long supported her Nourish You Community Kitchen, which serves meals to the unsheltered and hungry.
But Chef Joan’s activism went into overdrive with the Covid pandemic. When the schools she was servicing shut down in March 2020, she found herself with two weeks’ worth of backlogged food. Meanwhile, at the public food banks, bins of discarded veggies and onions were sitting unused. Joan knew how to combine these ingredients. She took them to her kitchen and assembled beautiful, nutritious meals, offering them to the most marginalized members of her community: homebound seniors and the unhoused.
Today’s lasagna offering features tempting sides: a vegetable medley of brussels sprouts, carrots, and roasted squashes; garlic bread from Acme bakery; and a tossed salad. But it’s not enough to be delicious. Joan keeps an eye on her ingredients, making sure they’re ethically sourced. She has also stopped serving beef, and for more than humanitarian reasons: “Do you know how much water it takes to grow one pound of beef?!” Likewise with pork: “I cannot conscience the way these highly intelligent mammals are raised, and slaughtered.” Her meat-based recipes use a turkey/chicken blend instead.
Along with ethical concerns, Joan skillfully navigates a range of dietary requirements (Halal, gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan), and a spectrum of allergies that range from cumin to sesame seeds. She attributes this rise in health challenges to factory farming and highly processed foods. “We use chemicals to make our fruit ripen quickly, and pesticides in our wheat. All of a sudden, everybody’s got a gluten allergy. It’s because of the way we produce wheat here. Why don’t we eat naturally? I think agribusiness is a big part of it.”
From 2007 until 2011, Joan taught a class through the Edible Schoolyard program. “What’s on Your Plate?” was a primer on nutrition, promoting the benefits of foods like broccoli and kale. “You could get kids to taste things they wouldn’t normally try,” she said.
They can see and smell the food, and then they get excited. ‘What’s that? What do we have today?’”
These days, her interactions with the students she feeds happen in the serving line, where her smartly prepared meals are served hot, from open chafing dishes. “They can see and smell the food,” says Joan, “and then they get excited. ‘What’s that? What do we have today?’ I have face-to-face interactions, and can offer them some encouragement and education. Rather than just handing out packaged foods and letting them have at it.”
The following Tuesday, I join Joan during lunch hour at Black Pine Circle School. The menu is Middle Eastern: rice, falafel, pita bread, chicken shawarma, hummus, baba ganoush, salad, and half a dozen spicy sauces. Though the line snakes clear around the building, Joan appears to know each student personally.
“How’s your dad, Iris? Enjoying his new job?”
“Hi Ben; you can eat everything here but the pita.”
To a tall girl in an orange halter: “Isn’t this saffron rice a beautiful color?”
“Hey, Jason, did you watch the game last night? A forty-two point spread!”
“Enjoy, Sierra, the falafel are vegan!”
During a break in the line, Chef Joan glances in my direction. “I do look at what we’re doing as a craft,” she says. “It’s about creating something beautiful for people: creating joy, creating connection, creating community.”
Photos courtesy of Joan Gallagher / Nourish You, unless otherwise noted.