Correction to This Article
This article on school lunches misspelled the first name of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). She is Darlene Dicks, not Darlene Kicks.

At Some Schools, Tastier Trays Come at a Price

By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Here's what everyone agrees on: Too many kids are fat. The food they get at school, which provides 35 percent of most schoolchildren's calories, is not nutritious enough and tastes lousy, to boot. And there's not enough money to change this unwholesome picture.

So here's the question: How much will it cost to fix school lunch?

Congress will seek the answer this fall as it budgets for childhood nutrition programs, which include about $12 billion annually for school meals. There is no lack of proposals. The nonprofit School Nutrition Association is asking for a 35-cent-per-lunch increase in the federal reimbursement rate, which now stands at $2.68. Sen. Kristen Gillibrand (D--N.Y.) wants a 70-cent raise. Berkeley, Calif., chef and local-food pioneer Alice Waters is lobbying to bring the total to $5 per student. The administration, too, supports improving school food, at least rhetorically: President Obama has proposed an additional $1 billion for child nutrition programs, including school lunch, in his 2010 budget. Michelle Obama is promoting healthful eating as a signature issue.

But with a projected $1.6 trillion federal deficit in 2009, even the strongest supporters of school lunch reform privately concede a substantial increase is unlikely to pass. That means no extra money to rebuild school kitchens, to train cafeteria workers or to buy more fresh fruits and vegetables. Progressive food service directors will continue to add leaner menu items and salad bars. But on the whole, traditional school lunch, that culinary gantlet of tater tots and greasy pizza, appears here to stay.

Or does it?

Oakland, Calif.-based Revolution Foods thinks it might have a solution. The four-year-old company turns out thousands of made-from-scratch meals -- such as roasted chicken with yams, beans, a locally grown peach and a carton of milk -- that meet all Department of Agriculture nutrition standards. It shuns high-fructose corn syrup and trans fats and includes only hormone- and antibiotic-free milk and meat and all-natural ingredients. The price, between $2.90 and $3 per lunch, is not much higher than the current $2.68 the government pays.

To date, more than 250 schools in California, Colorado and, beginning this year, the District have signed on. Public health advocates and lawmakers are watching closely to see whether the model can work.

Hiring Revolution Foods for the 2009 school year was a financial stretch at the KIPP LEAP Academy, a charter school in Southeast Washington. To cover the gap between what the federal government pays and what Revolution Foods charges, the school had to secure a $25,000 grant. But the school already had been struggling to make ends meet on its school lunch program, said Irene Holtzman, the director of student data and accountability for KIPP DC. About 80 percent of students at KIPP DC's seven schools qualify for a free or reduced-price school lunch. Providing a tasty school meal can increase attendance, boost student focus and, especially among younger children, improve lifelong nutritional habits, Holtzman said: "It's a testament to how important [food] is to schools in general that they're even willing to consider it. In general, when you ask a school about something that's a money loser, the answer is no."

Revolution Foods' lunches went down reasonably well on KIPP LEAP's first day of school. Nineteen of 23 kindergarteners in Liz Olson's class sat down to a meal of cheese tortellini, carrots, milk, a whole-wheat roll and a nectarine. The students were flummoxed by the un-fuzzy peach. And most preferred the tortellini to the carrots; "it tastes different," said Jada Hillard, who was persuaded to try one carrot but refused to eat any more.

The food "is quite different than before," said Olson, who had tasted Revolution Foods' meals during summer school. "None of the vegetables are frozen, and there's a wider variety of what they get to eat. Before, you could visibly see the grease on the entrees; now you don't."

Founders Kristin Richmond and Kirsten Tobey conceived Revolution Foods when they were students at the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley. In spring 2006, the pair launched their first pilot program at an Oakland, Calif., school. By year's end, the new company was serving 10 schools. "We heard all the reasons why it couldn't be done: Kids won't eat healthy food. It's too expensive," said Richmond, 34. "But it was clear demand was there."

The key question was how to meet that demand at a price the schools could afford. Revolution Foods serves a network of charter and private schools, which, like KIPP LEAP, sometimes can tap extra funds. But the company's mission is to serve public schools in low-income areas as well. The all-natural cheeses, hormone-free milk and organic produce used by Revolution Foods are more expensive than the ingredients in an average school lunch.

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