A group of six Haley Pilot School students sat at tables aligned in a V-formation, eating a lunch of barbecued chicken (or chickpeas for a non-meat substitute), mac & cheese, and green beans.
“This is way better,” two students, third grader Joseph Dines and seventh grader Ethan Buissereth chirped in unison, comparing their current meal to school lunches served last school year.
“[Last year] I would never eat the mac & cheese. The mac & cheese was all sticky — it was just dry. It was dry like cereal,” said Joseph, who added that he liked this year’s version because it was “cheesier” as he and his peers devoured their food out of black, plastic, compartmentalized trays.
The lunch was a sampling of the nearly 20,000 daily meals City Fresh Foods will provide this year to 164 sites across the Boston public school system. The Roxbury-based food producers in May were awarded a $17 million contract, the largest non-construction contract ever given to a certified Black-owned business by the city. The contract to feed tens of thousands of Boston Public Schools students is one of the largest the city gives out regularly and has historically been fulfilled by large corporations rather than local outfits.
What makes City Fresh unique is not only its local ownership and staff, but its practice of sourcing, preparing, and shipping the majority of its food exclusively in Boston. It’s a distinction many are touting as a catalyst for providing healthier, fresher, and more culturally relevant meals to BPS students, many of whom face some level of food insecurity.
The company was founded in 1994 by Glynn Lloyd in an attempt to “address the growing racial economic inequality in his neighborhood and the growing unsustainable agricultural practices globally,” with an emphasis on culturally relevant food, according to City Fresh’s website.
City Fresh Foods has about 200 employees (the contract allowed them to add about 70 new positions), the majority of whom are Boston residents of color who have children who attend BPS schools. These employment demographics, paired with City Fresh’s local food procurement and delivery strategies, means a vast majority of the $17 million should continue circulating throughout the local economy, especially in communities of color. In addition, City Fresh, now run by Glynn’s brother Sheldon Lloyd, has started offering stock options to its employees in an attempt to help them build long-term wealth.
“I’m from Boston, this company is 28 years old, my kids have been in the [public school] system. So, for me, it’s more than just a contract,” Sheldon Lloyd said. “We did it to fulfill that mission of being able to feed the kids of Boston and give them something better and different and to make a difference,” he said.
City Fresh prides itself on serving students meals they are familiar with and that are compatible with their dietary needs. Lloyd said his company plans to bring dishes such as rice and beans, Jamaican beef patties, and stewed chicken to BPS cafeterias, a selection that he said is heavily influenced by the amount of people with Caribbean roots working in City Fresh kitchens.
Juliana Cohen, an associate professor of nutrition and public health at Merrimack College and an adjunct associate professor of public health at Harvard University, says freshness is critical to nutrition.
Cohen, who has researched the link between school nutrition and academic performance for 15 years, said students from lower-income backgrounds often rely on school meals for about half their daily caloric intake, which means City Fresh’s meals could go a long way towards combating food insecurity in Boston. However, only 43 percent of BPS students participated in school meals last year according to Lloyd, a number which Cohen says is reflective of an incorrect assumption about food insecure students.
“The cultural relevance of the food is so important and often overlooked with school meals,” she said. “We’ve been doing research for over a decade in schools and there’s been this misconception that if you come from a food-insecure background, and you’re given food, the child will eat it. And in fact, that’s not the case. When you focus on the quality and the cultural appropriateness, the consumption of the school meals increases substantially.”
Mayor Michelle Wu has been advocating for food justice and inclusive economic initiatives since her days as a city councilor. At a recent school event where she taste-tested the food, Wu said City Fresh will facilitate positive health outcomes for BPS students as well as having a marked economic benefit on Boston.
“We’ve established higher standards for the food that we feed our young people and the companies and partners that make that food,” Wu said. “Here we have a local company: that’s local jobs, great labor practices, building wealth right in our neighborhoods.”
Jen Faigel, executive director of CommonWealth Kitchen, a nonprofit food business incubator with a focus on racial, social, and economic justice in the food industry, has bid on city contracts in the past. She said budgets on these projects are often too small, they come with obscure and restrictive government regulations, and the logistics of shipping food across the city can be a nightmare.
“There’s a reason there aren’t that many people who do school food and even fewer that do it well. Because it’s really, really hard,” Faigel said.
Faigel, who has collaborated with City Fresh numerous times, called the contract “a game changer” for food businesses owned by Bostonians of color and added that she doesn’t “envy the complexity of what they’re doing,” but has “full confidence in their capacity” to fulfill the contract.
The attention to what kids actually want to eat seems to be paying off already.
Canicha Cenat Fils, a fifth-grade student at Haley said when she saw a City Fresh meal for the first time she thought, “That looks like what I eat at home.”
Julian E.J. Sorapuru is a Development Fellow at the Globe and can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JulianSorapuru