Earlier this summer I went back to middle school. I walked through the dark hallways, past the empty guidance counselor's office, and down a few flights of stairs, until I reached the bustling cafeteria, where I found 10 of the country's best chefs — all crammed into one kitchen, cooking school lunch together.
No, this wasn't some bizarre fever dream I had one restless night — it was Brigaid's $1.25 Throwdown, a very real (although surreal) event that took place at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School in New London, Connecticut.
Founded by former Noma Head Chef Dan Giusti in 2016, Brigaid is "a group of chefs rethinking what it means to feed people." The for-profit organization places professionally trained chefs in school kitchens (currently in six public schools in New London, with plans to expand to the Bronx in the fall), where they work with the existing staff to serve students nutritious, scratch-made meals within a strict set of budgetary and nutritional guidelines.
Those guidelines are set by the National School Lunch Program. An example for a 9th to 12th grade lunch requirement includes 2 ounces of a meat or meat alternative (meat, poultry, or fish; shredded cheese; or yogurt), 2 ounces of grains (whole-grain pasta, brown rice, any milled grain), 1/2 cup of vegetables, 1/2 cup of fruit, and 8 ounces of milk. The lunch must come in at under 850 calories and 1420 milligrams of sodium, with less than 10 percent of the calories from saturated fat, and 0 percent trans fat.
New London Public Schools can also only budget $1.25 for each lunch — a number that makes it difficult to fill kids' plates with fresh food versus the processed, prepackaged ingredients most foodservice providers rely on. But Brigaid puts immense thought and time into working around that $1.25 budget to bring varied meals to its students.
And, perhaps most importantly, these lunches have to be appealing (so the kids actually want to eat them!).
Sounds like a tall order, right? A challenge, even? That was the idea behind Brigaid's first-ever $1.25 Throwdown, which took place on June 2.
As a fundraiser for New London Public Schools, Giusti invited 10 of the country's best and most interesting chefs and restaurateurs, including Stuart Brioza of State Bird Provisions, Jessica Koslow of Sqirl, and David Posey of Elske — see the full lineup here — to Brigaid's hub in New London to battle it out over who could make the best school lunch. The event featured five waves, with two chefs competing in each wave. The dishes — which ranged from Italian fried rice to ma po tofu lasagna — were served to the public and judged by a panel of students and food writers.
I posted up in the kitchen for a bit, watching the chefs in the current wave plate their dishes and those who had finished waves jump in to lend a hand. I also picked a few of their brains — and in listening to their rationales for the recipes they chose, I noticed a few themes about cooking healthful food on a tight budget.
Many chefs used dried herbs and spices or spreads like tomato jam and vegan aioli (made with aquafaba!) to inexpensively boost the flavor of their dishes. Since they were up against some discerning kid judges, they also packaged their required veggie servings in smart ways like blending sweet potatoes into smoothies and mixing cauliflower into potato dumplings.
But the most salient point about these chefs' budget cooking strategies that hit me that Saturday was this: If you're not spending money, you're spending time. A lot of it. That's the tradeoff, and — bringing this to the realm of the home cook — it's not always viable for everyone.
The most common theme among the chefs was that they opted to make certain items from scratch instead of buying them. Jessica Koslow, of Sqirl in Los Angeles, CA, milled the grains for homemade bread for Monte Cristo sandwiches. She also brined and roasted a turkey instead of buying pre-sliced deli meat.
James Wayman, of Oyster Club in Mystic, CT, made his own flour tortillas (50 percent wheat, 50 percent white) for his veggie burritos, while Jeremiah Langhorne, of The Dabney in Washington, D.C., cooked up budget-friendly chicken legs and shredded them for his chicken tacos. And then there was the winning dish — the fish sandwich from Ghetto Gastro — which was served on a homemade Caribbean salt bread that fermented overnight.
All of the aforementioned chefs came in under budget ($1.17, $1.22, $1.06, and $1.24, respectively), which was the point of the challenge, but it made me wonder: If you're a busy parent trying to put healthy food on the table without breaking the bank, at what point does the luxury of time outweigh the luxury of money? And what happens to parents who have neither?
We have plenty of resources on Kitchn for cooking and shopping on a budget, in which the conventional wisdom, generally speaking, echoes what I saw in that cafeteria: that it's cheaper to DIY than buy. But we also encourage our readers to embrace convenient foods, like frozen meals and pre-riced cauliflower, if they help make the business of getting dinner on the table easier for their families. So what's best: racking up a high grocery bill, or spending hours in the kitchen braising pork shoulder and baking sourdough?
What I do know is the fact that what our children put in their bodies, whether at home or at school, often comes down to a choice between healthy, homemade (read: expensive, in time and money) food or quick, processed (read: cheap) food, is a national issue that deserves our ongoing attention. And I for one am grateful that organizations like Brigaid, and all the people who are part of it, are making big, impactful strides towards solving it.