By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 30, 2009; E01
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.
One answer to capping costs is Revolution Foods' partnerships with food suppliers. The company has cut deals with purveyors such as grocer Whole Foods Market, dairy Clover Stornetta Farms and, here in the mid-Atlantic, Uptown Bakery in Hyattsville and sauce and soup maker Chesapeake Gardens in Glen Burnie, Md. To support their mission, Richmond says, partner companies offer a discount of 5 to 8 percent off typical wholesale prices. Revolution Foods also has negotiated extended payment terms with most vendors, a boon when working with cash-strapped schools.
Revolution Foods also saves money by making most of its meals from scratch. The company's first prep kitchen was a retrofitted McDonald's on a naval base in Alameda, Calif. It now has four commissaries that produce 40,000 meals a day. In Washington, the company has outgrown its Silver Spring kitchen and plans to move to a 20,000-square-foot space in Northeast Washington to service its 25 local charter and private schools. "The conventional wisdom says that if you buy packaged goods, you save money," Richmond said. "But by putting the work in and buying fresh broccoli, rather than chopped and bagged, we're able to save a lot of money."
Some are still skeptical about whether the Revolution Foods model can work in the country's largest and poorest school districts. Tony Geraci, the director of food service at the Baltimore City Public Schools and a pioneer for healthful, local foods in schools, says Revolution Foods is right to buy wholesome ingredients and cook meals from scratch in regional commissaries. But he worries that the company will be unable to bring costs down enough or take on school bureaucracies.
"I think for the market segment they're chasing, it's obtainable," Geraci said. "Charter schools have a different mind-set. They understand the connection between nutrition and education, so they may be willing to pony up the extra money."
Indeed, prospects are dim for a substantial increase to the federal reimbursement rate. "The president asked for $1 billion," said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington. "But he can't be knocking on [Montana Senator and Senate Finance Committee Chairman] Max Baucus's door asking for it when he's asking for $1 trillion for health care. I don't think we'll end up with it being based on what's needed. It will be more like, here's the pot we have, so how much can we put towards reimbursement?"
Without more federal funds, Geraci says, public schools will have to settle for incremental, if important, change. This year, Geraci is implementing meatless Mondays to improve nutrition -- and the bottom line. Fairfax County Public Schools offers a choice of two salads each day: a chef's salad with tuna, for example, or fruit salad served with yogurt and a pretzel. Last month, Whole Foods Market partnered with school lunch crusader Ann Cooper to launch a Web site called the Lunch Box (http://www.thelunchbox.org) that offers menus, recipes and technical tools for budget planning to help schools wean themselves from packaged and processed foods.
Richmond says Revolution Foods' model can work. So far, in the Washington area the company is working only with charter and private schools. But it does serve 15 public school districts in California. Some, such as the Los Gatos Union district, are affluent. Others are not: Roseland, in Sonoma County, serves a population in which 81 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals.
Revolution Foods will help schools raise money to bridge the financial gap, Richmond said. In some cases, paid lunches can subsidize meals for lower-income students. The company also provides free catering for events to raise money for better school food. And, of course, Richmond is hopeful that the federal government will raise the federal reimbursement rate when it reauthorizes child nutrition programs later this year.
"We have to be smart as a country and a food system," Richmond said. "But we are living proof that it can be done."