from The Economist — A new company is trying to make school meals healthier

The Economist
May 4, 2013

School food
Bit­ing com­men­tary
May 4th 2013 | CHICAGO AND NEW YORK |From the print edition

THE day a girl fainted from hunger was the final straw for Emmanuel George, the prin­ci­pal of Democ­racy Prep char­ter school in Harlem. She had refused to eat the “nasty food” served at his school. Her dis­taste was shared widely: many went hun­gry, and those who did eat mostly chose junk food. So in Jan­u­ary Mr George switched to a sup­plier of healthy lunches called Rev­o­lu­tion Foods. Since then the pro­por­tion of chil­dren choos­ing to accept free meals has gone from less than half to over 85%. Vis­its to the school nurse plum­meted, and com­plaints of stomach-​​ache and headaches have almost van­ished. Teach­ers say every­one works bet­ter in the afternoons.

Every­one from Michelle Obama to Jamie Oliver is try­ing to improve children’s diets, but doing so has proved dif­fi­cult. It is, then, par­tic­u­larly inter­est­ing that a solu­tion is emerg­ing from the pri­vate sec­tor. Rev­o­lu­tion Foods, which is based in Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia, serves 1m meals a week in nearly 1,000 schools across Amer­ica. Most of its cus­tomers are pub­lic schools.

Despite a recent upgrade to the fed­eral health stan­dards (and fund­ing) of school din­ners, most are still made rather like air­line food. Meals are put together in large pro­cess­ing cen­tres, pack­aged, some­times frozen, and then shipped across the coun­try. When they arrive, the lunches are reheated in “retherm ovens” or warm­ers. This is cer­tainly cheap, but does noth­ing for taste, fresh­ness or nutrition.

Kristin Groos Rich­mond, co-​​founder of Rev­o­lu­tion Foods, says despite a $16 bil­lion mar­ket for food in schools, she felt there was no good way of deliv­er­ing healthy meals. Instead she cre­ated a school-​​dinners com­pany that used healthy and locally pro­duced food with an empha­sis on using chil­dren to design, and test, the meals. Some­thing seems to be work­ing: the com­pany recently won a con­tract to serve food to 114 schools in the San Fran­cisco Uni­fied School Dis­trict, and sub­se­quently the pro­por­tion of chil­dren who chose to eat the free meals jumped by 12%.

None of the fare offered by Rev­o­lu­tion con­tains junk-​​food sta­ples such as high-​​fructose corn syrup or trans­fats. It is hor­mone– and antibi­otic– free, and some­times organic. Avoid­ing use of the deep-​​fat fryer has been hard. When Ms Groos Rich­mond began work­ing with Wash­ing­ton schools she was asked to pro­vide a chicken wing. It took over 1,000 attempts (along with tast­ings and focus groups) to cre­ate a child-​​approved baked chicken wing infused with a spicy sauce.

Accord­ing to the com­pany, the keys to win­ning chil­dren over to health­ier foods are good pre­sen­ta­tion and trust. As chil­dren learn that the food tastes good, they become will­ing to try nov­el­ties such as lima beans. But Rev­o­lu­tion Foods also receives daily reports on what is not being eaten. If nec­es­sary it will send some­one in to pro­mote par­tic­u­lar foods, or cre­ate signs, in order to boost demand. This hap­pened recently when its cau­li­flower flo­rets were being rejected.

Healthy meals do cost more, though. For Rev­o­lu­tion Foods to rep­re­sent a chal­lenge to the estab­lished sys­tem it would need to be mak­ing a profit, and it is not, although some of its regions are. The com­pany says its rapid expan­sion means that it is not expect­ing to make money yet. (It was the second-​​fastest-​​growing inner-​​city com­pany in 2012 accord­ing to the Ini­tia­tive for a Com­pet­i­tive Inner City, a non-​​profit strat­egy group.)

On the day The Econ­o­mist vis­ited Democ­racy Prep, pupils had a choice between mac­a­roni cheese (the real kind) and baked beans, or chicken pasta salad. Dessert was yogurt or whole-​​grain crack­ers. The menu also included sweet­corn and an orange. Lit­tle was left on the plates. A nutri­tion­ist from the com­pany went from table to table explain­ing por­tion and serv­ing size with props, show­ing the chil­dren that they need to eat four to six base­balls of veg­eta­bles a day. The pupils said that ham­burg­ers and, sur­pris­ingly, the chicken Cae­sar salad were their favourite items on the menu. As ever, the proof of the pud­ding is in the eating.

From the print edi­tion: United States