Playing a Part in a New Vision for Healthy School Lunch: Interview with Britt Galler of Acre Gourmet
Acre Gourmet works with local purveyors to cook healthy, sustainable food on-site at schools in the Bay Area. They design and manage distinctive on-site lunch programs with the goal of integrating the school community and delicious, healthy food. Below is our interview with Britt Galler, Acre Gourmet's executive chef.
The Edible Schoolyard Project: How did the Real School Lunch program begin and what is the long-term vision for the company?
Britt Galler: We began in the restaurant and catering business over 20 years ago with a focus on local and organic foods. In 2005 there was a new private high school being created in The Presidio where we operate a cafe. The school committee ate lunch at the cafe often, and inquired as to whether we would be interested in becoming their future foodservice provider. We loved the idea of feeding kids wholesome foods and being part of a new vision for healthy school lunch. Seven years later, we continue to refine and evolve our program as we learn from experience, and as the availability of local, sustainably produced food increases. We have seen the effectiveness of our program over the years, as we watch our school communities come together daily to share a healthy meal. Our long-term vision is to continue in this vein, feeding a growing clientele and serving as a model for a healthy school lunch program.
ESYP: What is your top priority and how do you measure success?
BG: Our top priority is to feed our school communities healthy, locally-based menus made from scratch by employees that enjoy their work. We measure our success by the ever increasing quantities of wholesome foods we prepare daily, as well as by the warm responses we get from our children, faculty, and parents. We feel blessed to be in such a rewarding business!
ESYP: How many students do you serve every day and what is the structure of your Real School Lunch program?
BG: We feed close to 2000 people every day at all our schools, in an all-inclusive self-service style. We bill the school monthly and everyone eats lunch together without monetary transactions. Everyone has access to the same menu choices and they all serve themselves, selecting the variety and quantity that suits their individual needs. We find this reduces waste and encourages personal responsibility for making good choices.
ESYP: Do you receive feedback from students or parents?
BG: Yes, we encourage feedback from our eaters and their parents, and some of our most successful menu items are based on their suggestions. We really value and enjoy being a part of our school communities and the sentiment that we are all on the same team to create the best lunch program possible.
ESYP: What is the structure of your zero-waste recycling program? Is every school you work with required to implement it?
BG: We are very lucky in San Francisco to have such a comprehensive composting program as part of our city services. Since we make all of our food from scratch and in a large volume, there is no individual item packaging involved. Our waste generally falls in either the compost or recycling categories. All of our schools happily comply. Since our program is all-inclusive to the entire school, there is no food packaging coming into the lunchroom from outside sources. We utilize real dishware for service and our napkins are compostable.
ESYP: Have you worked with the San Francisco Unified School District to partner with public schools or are your client schools private only?
BG: Unfortunately the public school food budgets are not feasible to offer the type of foods we source and serve. Additionally the amount of paperwork and nutritional analysis required in the public system is a major deterrent in producing foods from scratch. The current system and budget is far more conducive to processed foods where the analysis is already done, and additional administrative hours aren’t needed, nor additional kitchen labor to prepare foods from scratch. We have done some consulting in the public sector, and would love to help as it becomes more viable through changes in policy.
ESYP: How do you see better school food systematized to be feasible for every child?
BG: To create a system based on public policies that uphold a standard of wholesome eating with a focus on local sourcing and foods made from scratch. As a culture we need to recognize the negative health implications of industrially processed foods and rely upon a simpler style of food with a higher level of nutrition and a lower level of environmental impact. A perfect example would be serving oatmeal for breakfast rather than a processed baked good -- two ingredients vs. dozens. Or, offer a quesadilla with black beans and brown rice instead of a fried, then frozen, then microwaved, corn dog with French fries. School lunch and its funding and subsidies are a very complex and layered system, and I am heartened to see the conversation starting in the public forum. Parents and administrators are starting to affect changes and mainstream media is starting to highlight these issues. I have hope that the system is moving in a good direction. It can’t be a moment too soon given the rise in childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes. The health and well being of our children directly impact our future as a country. We are so rich in resources, I hope we can turn a corner and revert back to an older style of lunch service that was based on real food from real ingredients.
ESYP: How many farmers do you source from and how far are their farms from San Francisco?
BG: We work with dozens of vendors, and our local products include rice, meats, dairy, breads, and oils -- as well as produce. We strive to source in California for as much of our ingredients as possible and often we are using produce grown within 50-100 mile radius. We are very lucky in the Bay area, as we live in an incredibly abundant and diverse zone for food production. Sourcing locally in the Bay area is easy!
ESYP: How do you keep your food affordable?
BG: Affordable is a relative term. Our food is affordable in the private sector but not the public sector. We are able to offer a much higher quality product based on local, organic ingredients prepared from scratch because of the way we have structured our program. By operating on an all-inclusive model we know exactly how many people to prepare food for daily, minimizing the waste and cost of preparing meals to sell without knowing how many will be bought. The all-inclusive model also eliminates the need for labor to handle the service of each monetary transaction and the management of individual accounts. Allowing people to serve themselves also reduces waste. We are able to focus our labor on cooking which is what we love to do!
ESYP: What is the most rewarding part of your job?
BG: Seeing the same faces everyday at lunch, and watching them enjoy seasonal, wholesome meals, is very rewarding. It has been exciting to see the lunch program evolve at the schools over the years, and to be able to quantify the increase in quantities of local foods purchased and consumed. The fact that our eaters express preferences on citrus varietals during the winter, or patiently wait for the first strawberries -- that they don’t demand bananas or clamor for tomatoes in the winter -- and that they eat artichokes, brussels, and kale, creates a very rewarding work environment for all of our staff.
Acre Gourmet is a member of edibleschoolyard.org