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Healthy, organic and cheap school lunches? Order up

By Greg Toppo | USA Today

Marta Gusman, center, prepares turkey wraps at Revolution Foods in Oakland The small start-up is pushing to make mostly organic, natural, fresh entrees that are priced just above the federal reimbursement that most schools get from the USDA.
By Noah Berger, for USA TODAY

Marta Gusman, center, prepares turkey wraps at Revolution Foods in Oakland The small start-up is pushing to make mostly organic, natural, fresh entrees that are priced just above the federal reimbursement that most schools get from the USDA.

Chef Alan Viduya seasons carrots at Revolution Foods.
By Noah Berger, for USA TODAY

Chef Alan Viduya seasons carrots at Revolution Foods.

OAKLAND — On the combination plate of problems plaguing the USA's public schools, few are as intractable as this: Can you serve fresh, healthful meals each day to millions of kids without breaking the bank, or must you resort to serving up deep-fried, processed, less expensive junk?

For more than a decade, big food thinkers have chewed on this, making it a cause célèbre. But most often they find that feeding kids well requires one simple thing: more money.

The federal government pays, on average, $2.68 per child per meal – and most food advocates say that simply isn't enough. A few insist it can't be done for less than $5.

So it's big news when someone tries, even on a small scale, to feed kids well for under $3 a pop.

An all-natural meal

For the first time, a small, privately held start-up is pushing to do just that: producing what are by all accounts fresh, healthful, all-natural school meals for just under $3 apiece. Starting with just one school in spring 2006, Revolution Foods has quietly grown year by year and now delivers about 45,000 breakfasts, lunches and snacks daily to 235 public and private schools in California, Colorado and the District of Columbia .

Since April, about 14,000 of those meals each day have come from a 22,000-square-foot facility in an Oakland industrial park.

The growth is impressive, but what's perhaps most striking is what the meals look and taste like – and the rogues' gallery of components (fries, canned green beans, cling peaches in heavy syrup) that are missing.

Revolution shuns high-fructose corn syrup, artificial colors and flavors, trans fats and deep-frying. Its meats and milk are hormone- and antibiotic-free, and many of its ingredients are organic and locally sourced.

Company co-founder and chief operating officer Kirsten Saenz Tobey says Revolution's plan is to "take the school lunch problem off the schools' plates" with kid-friendly but healthful food. "A principal doesn't want to manage a restaurant."

Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says she's slightly concerned with Revolution's insistence on natural, local ingredients.

"You can have full-fat cheese from a local farmer, and it's still going to clog your arteries and give you heart disease," she says. "Having the food be natural is nice, but a bigger threat to children's health is making sure that there's not too much salt and not too much saturated fat."

Banishing high-fructose corn syrup, Wootan says, is "a waste of time and money" – better to limit children's total sugar intake. As for hormone-free milk, she says, most milk is hormone-free. "And if it isn't, it's not a health problem."

A sustainable model?

Much of Revolution's success has come from its ability to lower food costs by cutting deals with a handful of suppliers.

"They see us as a great distribution channel," Tobey says. "In one day we'll produce 30,000 turkey sandwiches – that's a lot more than is sold in a grocery store."

Katie Wilson, former president of the School Nutrition Association and nutrition director for the Onalaska, Wis., school district, admires Revolution's push to offer whole foods at a lower cost but says she's not sure it's a sustainable national model.

"Their suppliers are giving them a break now because it's quite popular to be in the market for school meals," she says. "How long will suppliers continue to give them a break?"

Revolution isn't the first to give this a try. In the past several years, several high-profile chefs have pushed to reinvent school lunch.

Just last month, Food Network star Rachael Ray got into the game, partnering with New York City public schools to develop a new menu and "get kids excited about the food they eat while embracing a healthier lifestyle."

The move to reinvent school lunches reflects new recommendations from the federal Institute of Medicine, which said last month that schools should limit sodium and calories and encourage children to eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Even the institute says the recommendations "will likely raise the costs of providing school meals." In his 2010 budget, President Obama asks for an additional $1 billion for the school lunch program.

Thea Stewart, a kindergarten teacher at KIPP DC: LEAP Academy, a charter school in Southeast Washington, D.C., says most of her students get most of their daily nutrition from Revolution: breakfast, lunch and snacks.

She says the company's attention to healthful menu items makes a huge difference in her students' abilities to concentrate.

"I think the food is a contributing factor to that," Stewart says. "It is not a lot of sugar and not a lot of heavy food."

No canned response

At a recent in-classroom lunch session at LEAP Academy, barbecue turkey and cheese wraps, sealed in little cardboard trays, are on the menu. U.S. Agriculture Department rules say all meals must include vegetables and fruits, but for many students, that means canned fruits and vegetables. Here, students find fresh lettuce and tomatoes in their wraps and, as they settle in, Stewart and a co-teacher offer each student a tiny green pear or yellow apple.

Morgan Bailey, 5, pops open the cellophane wrapper on her lunch and suspiciously eyes the little container of light brown dipping sauce. She nibbles the wrap for a few moments without touching the sauce. Then, at an adult's urging, she delicately dips a corner into the container and gives it a taste. Not bad.

Tobey is tight-lipped about the company's plans to expand to other markets but says, "It's likely that we will."

In the meantime, she and her partner, Kristin Richmond, an investment banker, are in high demand to talk about their business model.

"We are really happy to share as much as we can about what we do," she says, but she warns that Revolution has stayed fairly small for a good reason.

"It's not really something that's easy to replicate," she says. "If somebody can figure out what we're doing on a bigger scale, more power to them."


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