A fresh start for Boston school lunches
When Chinese-American families in San Francisco approached Revolution Foods a few years ago about creating some school meals similar to what their children would eat at home, the company didn’t balk.
Instead, the company pulled together its design team, chefs, and students from that city’s school system to develop a new array of breakfast and lunch items. Along the way, they ended up creating one of the company’s most popular food lines: Sunshine Rice Bowls, named by students, that often feature a smoky or orange chicken as a protein.
That kind of collaboration is what Boston students and families can expect when Revolution Foods takes over the preparation of breakfasts and lunches in most of the city’s schools this fall. The California-based company is on a mission to provide healthy, all-natural school meals that students will actually eat and that are affordable to make.
“We call our food kid-inspired and chef-crafted,” said Kirsten Saenz Tobey, the company’s cofounder. “We are very committed to incorporating kids’ feedback into our menu items.”
The most immediate change students can expect to their lunches is that they no longer will be frozen previously and trucked up from New York, which had been the case for the last six years when Whitsons Culinary Group held the contract. In most cases, Revolution Foods serves its meals a day after they have been prepared, and the dishes will be made locally.
Only about 1 percent of the food inventory will be frozen, according to school officials.
But that change might not be immediately visible to students when they pick up their lunch trays. That’s because the items will still come individually packaged. The meals will be served in schools where a lack of full-service kitchens requires meals to be prepared off site, which is the reality in two-thirds of the city’s 125 schools. The other schools have traditional cafeterias.
Revolution Foods also intends to bring breakfast into the classrooms at more schools in an effort to get more students to eat those meals. Many students skip breakfast when it is served in a separate area before school begins, either because they arrive late or forget to swing by.
Many parents and healthy food advocates who have been pushing the school system for dramatic changes in its breakfast and lunch programs hailed the selection of Revolution Foods as a good first step in bringing greater equity between schools that have cafeterias and those that don’t.
“The fact this happened is extremely overwhelming,” said Stephanie Shapiro-Berkson, a parent. “The Boston Public Schools and the city should be thanked for prioritizing access to healthy fresh food and for acknowledging the positive relationship that has to academic achievement.”
Shapiro-Berkson, like many parents and advocates, thought the school system was going to award the $38.4 million contract to the current vendor, Whitsons Culinary Group, of Islandia, N.Y., which they faulted for producing meals that many students didn’t like.
When it comes to school lunches, Revolution Foods is not your typical vendor. Tobey and fellow cofounder Kristin Groos Richmond came up with the idea for the company 11 years ago as MBA students at University of California Berkeley. They were taking a class together, and both happened to be interested in creating a socially minded company that would transform school lunches into healthy, tasteful ones.
The two were not mothers at the time (although they are now). But Tobey, a former teacher, had seen the negative effects of poor nutrition among her students, while Richmond, who also had worked in the education sector as well as banking, had made similar observations and became concerned.
“We spent a lot of time in class writing the business plan for the company and going out talking to students, teachers, school leaders, and superintendents about what opportunities they saw for improving the quality of school food,” Tobey said.
They later successfully sought backing from like-minded investors and partnered with their first schools in Oakland. Over the next decade, the company grew rapidly and now serves 2 million meals every week in 15 states. It made its first entry into Massachusetts in August 2014, signing a contract with Match Charter Public School in Boston, and has since added about two dozen other Massachusetts schools.
Nnenna Ude, Match’s chief operating officer, said the meals are “very kid-friendly.”
“Our students enjoy the meals and we are throwing away far less food than we did previously,” Ude said. “Kids are especially excited about meals that incorporate food items they are used to eating at home, for example, empanadas, mac and cheese, or rice and beans.”
Yully Cha, executive director of Bridge Boston Charter School, said her school also has seen a decrease in food waste and students are eating more fresh fruit.
“We’ve seen a definite improvement in quality ingredients and appeal,” she said. “Our families have appreciated meeting the Rev Foods reps. Sampling the food their children are eating helps them to promote the meals at school.”
Andrea Silbert, president of the Eos Foundation, which has been pushing Boston to serve more breakfasts in the classrooms, said she was pleased the school system and Revolution Foods intend to expand that effort.
“Breakfast in the classroom is one of the quickest and most efficient ways to take a bite out of the achievement gap,” Silbert said.