Dan Giusti’s next stop? Prison.
The Brigaid team is expanding its mission to change institutional food.
Some of you may know the name Dan Giusti? He’s the former Noma chef who in 2016 returned to New York and founded Brigaid, a for-profit company with a mission to change institutional food, beginning with meals served at public schools. He started in New London, bringing scratch-cooked nutritious meals to the entire school district; nourishing, kid-friendly plates like Beef Tacos with Shredded Lettuce, Yellow Rice and Peas, and Black Bean Salad; and Barbecued Chicken and Cornbread with Collard Greens, and his now famous Kale Chips.
He now has chefs across the country in schools in California, Denver, and New York. His work is fairly significant for equity; it ensures that every child can thrive, not just get by. That’s because millions of children across the country rely on school lunch for their daily nutrition, and for these kids who live at or under the poverty line, school breakfast and lunch are often their only meals of the day.
But food insecurity is not the only problem facing our country’s children: obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure are also hurting our kids, particularly children in low-income families, the kids who rely on school meals the most. It’s all connected: the kids who are food insecure need the school meals most, and they in turn are those who suffer from the highest rates of diet-related disease. School food has the opportunity to fix both issues, and with Brigaid, Dan is doing just that.
Dan is not only improving the quality of school food, he’s also inspiring the next generation of chefs to consider working in an “institutional” food setting instead of at a restaurant kitchen. Dan often says “institutional food is not the way it is because of the people who work in it, it’s because of the people who choose not to.”
“So many amazing people work in institutional kitchens,” he said. “They work hard and are dedicated to feeding overlooked groups of people including children, seniors and the incarcerated. They typically are underpaid, not provided with the resources they really need to prepare the food they would like to and haven’t been given proper training. They are also the ones who often receive the brunt of the criticism when the food being prepared is not up to the standard of those eating it or to those on the outside looking in.” To change that, he is asking chefs to “be looking at ourselves.”
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“We are trained to make food taste delicious…to cook in tight spaces, to manage tight budgets, to organize kitchens, to train others to cook…yet so few of us choose the path to work in institutional kitchens,” he said.
From Dan’s standpoint, it’s time to change that. It’s time for chefs to use their skills and experience to make a real difference in the lives of many.
If Dan succeeds, he has the potential to really change the future of not only school food but all institutional food—hospitals, and another area of institutional food that’s maybe not as popular to discuss but that’s in dire need of reform: Prison Food. And this is exactly where Dan is headed now.
Just this month, Brigaid placed its first chef in Maine’s Department of Corrections, working with their state detention facilities (both minimum and maximum security prisons) to not only improve the food and establish better food production systems, but to train those incarcerated with a solid set of culinary skills and a social network.
While it may not be reported on all that often, prison food is notoriously awful. Some inmates starve while others suffer through meals that are rotten and unsavory. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that correctional inmates are 6.4 times more likely to suffer from a food-related illness than the general population. Fresh fruit is the equivalent of a unicorn. The quality of food is just one hallmark of the unbelievable inhumanity of the system.
I have a particular interest in prison food; back in 2013 I reported a story for Eater about the artist Julie Green. Julie was known for her series on final meals requested by death row inmates, titled “Last Supper,” and, at the time, had just begun painting the first meals exonerees eat after leaving prison.
To gather menus and memories from those first meals, Green worked with Sara Sommervold, associate director of Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions. Julie sent a short questionnaire to all its clients who were exonerated (there have been 41 over the center’s 20-year history): Where did you eat your first meal? Who did you eat with? What did you order? Is there any particular reason you wanted the food you ordered?
One inmate she interviewed was Jason Strong (no relation to me). Jason spent 15 years behind bars for a murder he did not commit. When he was exonerated in 2015, his first meal was at a diner down the road from the prison, with his mom and his lawyers. He ordered a bacon mushroom cheeseburger. While he was waiting for his burger to arrive, he began talking about how he loved oranges as a child, and how he hadn’t had one while in prison. His waitress overheard his story and brought him an orange from the kitchen. While Strong made quick work of the burger, he could not eat the orange. He spent 40 minutes just holding it, rolling it around in his hands, before he began to peel it.
“The little things in life mean so much when you’re deprived of them,” he told the Center on Wrongful Convictions. “Out in the world we take them for granted.”
The sentiment of this man, exonerated from prison, sitting at a table cradling an orange; this stayed with me. And so when I heard Dan was going to start working in prisons, I called him. Here’s a bit of our conversation.
Andrea: Dan, I saw on Instagram that you’re going to be working in prisons, and I need to know more. Tell me.
Dan: Well, for me, since the beginning, it was about this idea that everyone deserves thoughtfully prepared food. My mission was about institutional food in general. We started in schools, but I am interested in all institutions because chefs and the folks trained to make food do not choose to work in these spaces. I want to change that. I want to inspire chefs to work in these spaces to help people eat better.
How did you decide to work with the Maine Prison system?
Our work in Maine is a partnership with @impactjustice and the Maine Department of Corrections. The goal of “Chefs in Prisons,” is to revitalize the prison food experience and provide high-quality culinary training to corrections staff and residents. We see this program as a pilot to be replicated across the country. I think it’s a great partnership; they are very forward thinking in Maine, and the food is not bad at all right now; the food I ate was actually better than some of the food I have had in public schools. They also have a robust agriculture program.
Tell me about your visit to the prisons. What was that like?
I visited seven prisons on my trip to Maine. This was the first time that I walked inside the walls of a prison. It was a lot to process—what I saw and how it made me feel. That being said, the folks at the Maine State Prison have created some very positive programs within the walls of the prison that I have been told, and can only imagine, are not commonplace amongst prisons across the country.
I spoke with some of the Maine Department of Corrections food service leadership team. The vibe in the kitchens was extremely positive. The residents (the incarcerated men) who work there take a lot of pride in their work and it shows in the final product. The meals they were producing were definitely not what you would expect for prison food.
You mentioned their agriculture program?
Yes, there is a huge garden outside of the Earned Living Unit, which is a living area reserved for a very select few incarcerated men, or residents as they are referred to, who have maintained a sterling record while incarcerated. Beyond that, they must go through a thorough application process to move to the Earned Living Unit. They live in an area of the prison where they can move around much more freely with limited supervision. They also have access to a large plot of land that they have turned into an incredible garden.
I spoke to one of the residents who gave us the breakdown of what’s been just recently planted in the garden and what the process looked like to make it all happen. This resident is a carpenter by trade and made sure to tell us that he’s just learning about plants and gardening. I was shocked. He was so knowledgeable about everything, that I assumed he had quite a lot of previous experience in this area. His energy was infectious.
Speaking with some of the residents really lit a fire in me to find a way not only to work with prisons to improve their food offerings but to really focus on developing a robust foodservice training program for the residents so when they get out they have the skills they need to get solid jobs within kitchens of all kinds.
The skills piece is an important one to your program.
Yes, for sure. I spoke to some young folks who are residents about how it is for them working in kitchens. They say it’s great and it makes it more realistic to get a job. They emphasized that if you don’t come out with a skill set and a connection to get a job, you are not hired, and without a job and then you come back to whatever you did before and end up back in jail. Just hearing these kids talk was very powerful. You see that in most prisons they are working in kitchens to make the food so people can eat, but there is no training system for the folks who are cooking in the kitchens. There is no formal training to set them up for success when they get out.
How are you approaching this project in Maine?
We will be placing a chef in the Maine prison system in January and together we will look at the project in two parts. This is not about making food better; we will, to a certain extent, but they are already doing well with their food so we are focused on coming up with a replicable model for other prisons.
And the second part is a culinary training program that can be scaled out in other prisons. My goal is to have inmates come out and work in the field and get a job. That’s something I have really wanted to do for a while in general, the documented training.
How so? Would you have a certificate program?
Something like that, yeah. For schools we train a lot of folks, but if they leave to work in another school or at a restaurant they don't have anything to show for it. Even in culinary school when you go to a job your employer doesn't know what you are proficient in, you have this broad scope of knowledge but what can an employer be sure you know how to do 100%? I want to create a program where you can communicate to someone via a document and I am proficient at these basic skills—knife skills, pieces of equipment, types of cooking. This will help an employer to know that this person understands these things well and will be valuable to their team.
Are you getting any feedback on your program in the Maine DOC yet?
It’s new so not yet, but I am curious what response I will get. It’s not as easy to sell as school food. But it’s important.
To learn more about Brigaid or to start working with Dan go here. Tell him Andrea sent you!