It’s always tempting to make a New Year’s resolution about food-eat less, or eat healthier, or take time for breakfast before the daily dash out the door. But Greg Christian, a keen-eyed and clean-shaven professional chef from Oak Park, is going way beyond food for 2007. This New Year he hopes to find students at three Chicago schools not only eating healthier, but thinking smarter, learning better, and living with a greater awareness of the natural world. The schools are guinea pigs in Chef Greg’s latest concoction, The Organic School Project.
Christian drinks his espressos black and approaches the rest of life with the same level of intensity. “I cook for some of the wealthiest people in the world,” he says of a typical day at work.
A wake-up call sounded when Christian’s children started bringing home dismal stories about their typical lunches at school. On his own path to culinary success, he had learned the pleasure of food emerging from his kitchen was due to a connection with the planters and growers and cooks, who all played a part in his final creations. But at school, kids only saw an impersonal mass of mushy vegetables lined up on their lunch trays.
In analyzing the intricacies of a school lunch program, which serves 380,000 meals a day in the Chicago Public Schools alone, Christian concluded that food wasn’t the only thing. Something deeper and harder to attain was missing: The students needed a sense of community in the cafeteria. He knew they would find it if they got their hands dirty in a garden plot and tasted the results.
With a strong spiritual underpinning nurtured through personal meditation and a dedication to greater self-awareness, Christian dreamed about a way to get young students excited about producing and cooking food-from seed packets to lunch plates. Never mind that he had a full-time job and a family to care for. Forget the enormous bureaucratic and economic challenges of unknotting the institutional food chain in the public schools, which relies heavily on USDA commodities. Even today, one year into the budding Organic School Project, Christian admits systemic changes can be daunting.
“But we owe it to ourselves,” he says. “As Americans, we have allowed our eating experiences to become mechanical and impersonal to the point where we miss all the love that ought to be a part of food preparation. We are in deep need of healing through food.”
That message harks back to his childhood when he started gardening with his grandfather on East Avenue in Oak Park. Today he still values that early connection to the earth and laments the disconnect that permeates American society. In the gap should be the very thing that made his grandma’s cooking so good-the plates she served were laced with love.
With a name that garners respect in the culinary world, Christian gained initial entree to and eventual blessing from the Chicago Public Schools food supervisor in 2005. In the past academic year, the Organic School Project encompassed three elementary schools. Together with school staff, the students are turning packed-down, debris-ridden dirt in Chicago into productive and arable soil. They have already brought in the first round of crops, glowing with excitement about leafy greens like Swiss chard, and Loyola University dietetic interns teach the students about nutrition and food choices each month. Christian said the project has already forged new relationships between schools, nearby churches, and neighbors.
In addition to what went in students’ mouths, Christian wanted to elevate what was going on in their minds and bodies. As a result, each school has added yoga for kids to its curriculum, led by Kim Vulinovic, owner of Yogakids of Oak Park. Through yoga and mindfulness exercises related to food and nutrition, Christian hopes to help students seek a higher level of consciousness and combat the social pressure to snack on too much fat and sugar.
With no training as a teacher and no personal connection to Chicago’s schools, Christian sometimes feels like he’s out on a long and shaky limb. Living in Oak Park, he decided not to work within the notably smaller and more adaptable local school system. “I wanted to get at the heart of the food chain, to show the big food companies and school administrations nationwide that we could make this idea succeed in the neediest situations. If we can build a community and get kids excited about school in Chicago, we can be the model for schools all over the country.”
For the coming year, Christian’s goal is to train each school’s cooks to spice up lunch with a little love and imagination using healthier, fresher ingredients. His eyes dance with the image of nutritious, wholesome, and locally-grown lunches rolling down the cafeteria lines. But his real pie-in-the sky goal is to build a community of growers, harvesters, cooks, and ultimately, eaters who are touched by more than just the taste of food.
Christian believes so strongly in the healing power of a food-producing community that he hardly worries about the diplomatic finesse required to build a coalition of industrial food giants, procurement specialists, dieticians, caterers, and educators who make up the school lunch equation. One man will need more than a skeleton staff of a half-time director and several student interns to pull it off. Funding is a constant battle, and while acting as chief fundraiser for the Organic School Project, Christian continues to run his high-profile catering firm. But his belief in the benefits of this effort is unshakeable.
An encouraging transformation has already come about as students and nearby neighbors began preparing garden plots for the first time. Immediately there was a sense of belonging and common purpose that might ultimately have more impact on raising test scores than a new education policy.
“How can legislators expect better math and science performance without attending to the students’ well-being and sense of awareness in schools?” asks Christian. Part of the project includes evaluation by a team of researchers from Loyola and Benedictine universities, who will determine the impact of changes at the three schools on students’ behavior, well-being, health, and attitudes.
As with any New Year’s resolution, the Organic School Project will require desire and discipline to succeed. Christian’s motivation is simple: “Americans suffer less and struggle less to survive from day to day than any other people on earth. We should be setting the pace for healthy living worldwide.”