Healthy Kids : Chef Greg Christian: Street-Smart Sustainability

Greg Christian is a highly successful Chicago-area chef, author, consultant and entrepreneur. His Organic School Project has done much to change the bleak landscape of public school lunches in Chicago and is now moving beyond the scope of one city to address the national problem. Through his consulting business, interviews and writings, he has become a major voice in the advocacy of a local, sustainable food system.

What makes Greg unique, however, is his pragmatic and often spiritual approach to actually bringing his visions about. He knows it’s not an easy crusade—but understanding this, his approach is one of realism: what it will truly take to win, not just the battles, but the war. His philosophy is outlined in his recent book Food and Forgiveness, which details his compelling journey into sustainability.

Organic School Project
Greg began his sustainable food activities with the Organic School Project—and how that came about is, in itself, a unique story.

“My youngest kid was really sick with asthma,” Greg told Organic Connections. “Basically the doctors couldn’t help her. She was at the hospital every other week and in intensive care regularly. My ex-wife (wife at the time), who was the primary caretaker, said, ‘We’re losing this battle. We’re going to start doing alternative medicine and we’re going to start eating only organic food.’ So we began feeding her all-organic food, and she got much better.

“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. I realized, in soberness, that all the children are the future of the world. So I began thinking, ‘How can I do this?’

“Then it came to me 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 Greg’s philosophy of “Grow, Teach, Feed,” which became the mantra of the Organic School Project. But Greg sensed there was a part yet to be realized. “I knew I was still missing something,” he said. “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 provide five billion free and reduced meals a year in American schools. 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.”

Once Greg had the fundamentals of his program, he created a business plan and went to work. Before too long he found himself before Sue Susanke, the food service director for Chicago Public Schools—about whom he had been sternly warned. “She had been the boss for 37 years, and everybody had told me she was this scary lunch lady,” Greg related. “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!’ ”

What actually occurred was the exact opposite. “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!’ She replied, ‘I know. Now you can tell me what it is.’ It was a miracle, and I attribute the miracle to what I said earlier about honoring all.”

For the next three years or so, Greg got in up to his elbows. “I put vegetable gardens in ten schools,” he recalled. “Into three schools I placed full-time nutrition, food and culture, along with environmental teachers. And then I actually fed one school 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.”

The program met with varying reactions from school staff and parents—but with the kids, Greg found he had been absolutely right about what was required to get them eating healthy food. “By sixth grade, kids’ palates are shot,” Greg pointed out. “They’re addicted to flavorings. I’m convinced that, just as the cigarette companies finally got busted for putting chemicals in cigarettes that were way more addicting than tobacco, it’s the same with food. I can’t prove it, but I’ve been saying it for years and I know it’s true.

“So, what that means is the children 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! In five weeks we went from serving none to running out.”

The first phase of the Organic School Project—being hands-on in schools—came to an abrupt end when Sue Susanke, who turned out to be Greg’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. I replied, ‘No, I’m not going to do that,’ and I ended up pulling out.”

But Greg had made his point: this year, largely because of the publicity he generated, Chicago Public Schools have a goal to spend two million dollars on local food to feed their students.

He is now well into phase 2 of the Organic School Project, putting to work all he has learned from phase 1. He is producing a series of books called the Grow Teach Feed Collection, which is a comprehensive set of instructions for schools on how to feed students healthy meals. He is also obtaining funding to build economically sustainable farm-to-school models.

Beyond the Schools
After Greg began the Organic School Project, he realized his push for sustainability couldn’t stop there—it had to make its way into his business ventures as well.

“When the Organic School Project had been up and running for a time, I realized that I couldn’t live two lives. Soberness kicked in; I was more sensitive and I couldn’t do it.”

Greg began by taking a look at food sources for his catering business. He was in for quite a shock.

“I just started to call my vendors and ask them where the food came from,” Greg said. “Not one vendor had one answer to any of my questions. I even had people who knew how to dig. We could not find out. They would say, ‘Oh, there are 11 possibilities; we’re not going to tell you because we’re not sure what you’re going to do with that information.’

“We finally just went around the vendors, working off the sides of boxes. I brought in some mapping people, and we plotted on a world map where all of our inputs came from and the routes they took to the kitchen. We started calling, e-mailing, Googling—whatever it took.

“At that time, I did over a million dollars in box lunches; for years I had the majority of the box lunch business in Chicago. I listed out all the inputs for the lunches, so I had the exact miles. One of the box lunches I served consisted of a vegetable pasta salad, a homemade chocolate-chip cookie and a turkey sandwich. The traveling, for all the ingredients in that little lunch, came to 32,000 miles, not including packaging! Then I found out that the compostable flatware I was using for it was coming from China and had over 6,000 miles on it.

“One of the ingredients we frequently used was cherry tomatoes. These tomatoes came from Holland, and every fancy place in America will know what I’m talking about—every chef has these Holland teardrop tomatoes all winter long in their salads. It turns out the Dutch supplier uses five farms around the world: in Africa, Israel, Holland, South America and elsewhere. Each farm sends their tomatoes to Holland, and then they package them and put their name on the outside, after which the tomatoes follow a whole other route from Holland to your kitchen.

“At that point, it all started to really crash in on me. Those tomatoes had 8,000 or 10,000 miles on them! It was ridiculous how they flew all over the world, then all over America, before I got them in my kitchen so I could put a tomato on my salad in January.”

The tipping point came when Greg and his staff researched the coconut milk they used on their coconut shrimp—a very popular and moneymaking dish for them. “We had a diagram,” Greg recalled. “It was like the trees are here but the coconut gets shipped over there, and they get the milk out and the milk gets shipped over there, and then they process and can it. It was this squiggly line; it was crazy.”

After seeing this, Greg drew his own line. He dropped coconut shrimp from his menu and then began making many other changes as well.

“All you can do when you find out the current scene is figure out how to deal with it, and change your ways,” said Greg.

Further Outreach
Following his success with the Organic School Project, Greg began consulting companies and organizations, using his philosophy and practices. As with children, he discovered that education is a large part of the process of bringing about true sustainability. Part of the problem is the fact that the food companies that many organizations buy from claim to be “going green”—but they don’t actually say to what extent, and customers don’t know enough to ask.

“A museum, school or hospital could be hiring a food service company or restaurant,” Greg explained. “Normally they would draw up a request for a bid to send out to various food service companies, and as part of that request they might say, ‘Tell us about your green program.’ Then the bidders would all bid for that multiyear contract and present their green programs. The organization, not being really educated about greenness, sustainability and food, would say, ‘Okay, so if we hire you and this is your green program, can we tell our stakeholders, our board, our customers and our staff that we’re going green with our food service?’ And the food service company would say, ‘Yes, you can tell them you’re going green because you’re inheriting our green program.’ Then the organization would give the winning bid out and would turn to their board and say, ‘We’re going green because our food service company says we’re going green.’

“My staff and I did some deep digging into these ‘green’ programs and found that many of them are just a lot of fluff. They do not have a real plan. I don’t want to name names, but, for example, one company says they’re doing $12 million in local food. Yet it’s a multibillion-dollar-a-year company. Twelve million dollars in local food? That’s like a sneeze! You’ve got to be kidding me! Another company claimed to be a supporter of the World Wildlife Fund; but when we dug into it, it turned out they had done one tiny thing, in one place, in 1984. That wasn’t the way they presented it at all.”

Knowing that these companies could present themselves as green without really being so, Greg found a way to begin to actually force the issue: he includes sustainability initiatives right in with his customers’ contracts, which the food service companies must agree to.

“Our Beyond Green program is about bringing to institutions (which hopefully will include schools and cultural institutions, and then hospitals, prisons, old-people homes and convention centers—anyone that hires a food service company) a real sustainability strategy so that the institution doesn’t inherit a food service company’s strategy.

“I’ve aggregated standards for sustainable food and sustainability into a huge matrix,” Greg continued. “There are about 50 cells in this matrix, into which I’ve dropped corresponding potential goals. Here’s an example of how it would work: The Field Museum in Chicago is about to go out and request bids for a ten-year contract from restaurant groups to run a couple of restaurants in their museum. I sit down with them and put up on the board hundreds of possibilities of sustainability goals, and then they pick one from all possible goals. For instance, an obvious one would be how much local food do you want to be served at these restaurants in ten years? So we bat around ideas and make it real, since we don’t want to lose people from bidding on this because it’s too extreme. And they might say, ‘Well, we think 25 percent local food in ten years; let’s shoot for that.’ Then I and my team incrementalize those goals over ten years. That strategy then becomes inherited by the food service company because it’s right there in the contract. In another example, ‘We want you to assess the current reality; we want you to figure out where all your food is coming from, and you’ve got a year to do it. So, where’s the milk coming from? Are there hormones in it or not? Where’s the chicken coming from?’

“These qualifiers then go out in the bidding process to all the people who think they want a restaurant in the Field Museum—the biggest food companies in the world. It means that we can bring in a strategy with actual measurables, because all of the strategies have measurables.”

With his Beyond Green program, Greg also utilizes his methods to help companies that are preparing food themselves so that they can incrementally become fully sustainable.

Greg is focusing in on particular types of organizations with Beyond Green. “I like to specialize in schools and cultural institutions because I think those are the leverage points,” he said. “I especially believe schools are the leverage point in moving the food system.”

The Perfect Storm
When asked how he thinks a sustainable food system will eventually hit the mainstream, Greg concluded in his unique style.

“It’s completely unsteady in the Middle East, where we get our oil. It has been for ten years; however, we’ve had dictators keeping it steady. But it’s all a house of cards, and we’re starting to see the house of cards fall. Our food system is completely based on oil, and once that crumbles we’re in a lot of trouble, because we’re flying food and driving food and shipping food around the world.

“Coincident with that, we’re seeing a lot of studies emerging about how unhealthful our food system is. So I think it’s going to be a combination of gas prices going way up, some kind of environmental event like losing the corn crop two years in a row in America, and health issues. A perfect storm is coming. We’re going to start planting vegetables where we used to plant corn and wheat, and we’re going to let the animals out of the barn so they can walk around.

“The big food companies are going to be a part of it—they will step up and see the light or they’ll be gone. It’s that simple.

“Look what happened in Cuba. They’re now growing 90 percent of their food in Havana for Havana. It happened overnight. When the wall fell, their oil stopped coming from Russia. Three days later, the tractors stopped in the countryside and they started planting in Havana. Now they grow over 90 percent of their food in the city for the city. It’s just not that hard to figure out.”

To find out more about the Organic School Project, visit www.organicschoolproject.org.

For more on Greg Christian and his consulting, visit www.gregchristian.com.

Greg’s book Food and Forgiveness is available from the Organic Connections bookstore.

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