Frito pie may be a weighty cultural icon in our state, but it is also heavy with salt, loaded with fat, and a fixture at many public school cafeterias. Trying to change what kids eat at school is hard, and no one may know it better than school principals, nutrition directors and cafeteria workers who are often too restricted by financial and political constraints (not to mention fickle appetites) to push through much needed change. Serving pizza with a whole grain crust is no small task when budgets are tight. While many schools have removed hormone-laced milk, added some whole grain options, and in some cases set up salad bars, there is still much need for improvement when a typical school lunch includes Salisbury steak or pork riblets. Rarely anywhere in the country are fresh, untreated whole foods on the menu. But the situation is even more critical in New Mexico, where due to high levels of poverty a school lunch may be the only reliable meal a child receives each day.
Now, the good news: change is afoot in northern New Mexico. Many public and private organizations are already working hard to get more fresh food to our kids in school (see Cooking with Kids, in the latest issue), and one more champion of children’s nutrition may be about to join the fight in New Mexico. Its name is Revolution Foods, and from its base in Oakland, California, it is trying to change what kids eat at schools all over the country. Founded in 2006, the company now serves 60,000 fresh and healthy meals daily (including breakfast, lunch and snacks) to students in California, Colorado, Texas, the District of Columbia and New Jersey. The company is now considering coming to northern New Mexico.
As a social venture business, Revolution Foods is interested in what it calls its triple bottom line: in addition to the usual financial bottom line, the company is committed to having a positive social and ecological impact. So far, this for-profit venture with a strong social mission has been successful on all fronts. “Our growth,” says Kristen Richmond, CEO of Revolution Foods, “has been driven by demand for higher quality food.” Their impressive expansion in just five years of operation certainly suggests they have tapped into a growing market.
That market encompasses a wide customer base that includes public, charter, private and parochial schools, as well as after-school, summer, and child development programs. Their standards are simple and strict: no rBST or hormones in milk or dairy; no hormones or antibiotics in meat; no fried food; no high fructose corn syrup; no artificial flavors, colors or sweeteners; and no trans fats. A typical lunch from Revolution Foods might include all natural chicken tamales with Spanish rice, a pear and an rBST-free milk. Their menus are kid-friendly, grounded in culture and geography, healthy, and as local as possible. Above all, they are made to be delicious. At a recent series of tastings for interested schools hosted by Richmond and executive chef Amy Klein, the spaghetti and meatballs proved popular, and a salad with a crunchy Asian twist was fresh, light and satisfying. Richmond and Klein were ready to change their enchilada recipe to include Christmas, red or green chile—whatever the schools, parents and students wanted. These tastings were just a first step to introduce New Mexican schools to the healthy lunch revolution and get them on board.
Needless to say, fresh, natural ingredients cost more. Nationally the price for a Revolution Foods lunch is between $3.00 and $4.25, compared to $2.00 charged by Albuquerque Middle and High Schools. The federal government chips in $2.77 for each low-income student that qualifies for a free lunch through the National School Lunch Program. Of the nearly 90,000 students in Albuquerque public schools, 56 percent are eligible for free or reduced price lunches. Although the federal reimbursement rate may increase in the next few years, it still leaves a gap between the price tag of a Revolution Foods lunch and what most schools and families can afford. So how does Revolution Foods serve schools that cannot afford between $3.00 and 4.25 per lunch?
First, the company charges schools on a sliding scale, with affluent schools paying more and thus subsidizing meals at lower income schools. Also, because of their high nutritional standards, Revolution Foods meals are 100 percent compliant with the USDA standards for reimbursement. This means that if a school does participate in the National School Lunch Program, they can still receive federal support for meals from Revolution Foods. Finally, the company has a licensed line of packaged snack foods, and sets aside 3 percent of net revenues to help discount prices for low-income schools.
Can all of this work in New Mexico? Revolution Foods estimates it could afford to operate in the state at $3.00 per meal provided it can serve 8000 meals daily and grow to 25,000 meals in the near term. If they partner with national and local foundations to build a culinary center (as they have done in other places), the price could go down. The question is whether there are enough students who can afford around $3.00 per meal.
Cien Aguas International School in Albuquerque, a dual language K-8 charter school, attended the recent tastings. Director Michael Rodriguez said he was “impressed with the quality of food and use of local vendors.” However, echoing a concern held by many schools, Rodriguez also said, “I just want to make sure it is affordable for families.” At his school, the 64 percent of students who do not qualify for federal assistance pay $2.75 for lunch. It remains to be seen whether families at Cien Aguas would be willing to pay an extra 25¢ per meal, and whether there are enough other schools who can afford these prices to make the numbers work.
Richmond addresses the price gap by pointing out that participation rates in school meal programs actually increase when Revolution Foods meals are served. More students buy the tastier, healthier lunch and this means higher revenues for budget-strapped schools. Pat Donovan, Revolution Foods’ Colorado Regional Vice President, attributes the increased participation rates to two factors: parents like the healthier meals and opt for buying them at school rather than packing lunch, while kids enjoy eating them more. Schools have also found that when kids eat healthier meals their academic performance improves in the classroom, and so does their behavior. Donovan shares anecdotal evidence to support this claim, saying that “AXL Academy, a pre-K-8 school in Aurora, Colorado, tracked test scores of students who participated in the Revolution Foods program and found a positive test score differential for students who were participating.”
Despite these benefits, and despite endorsement from Michelle Obama as part of her “Let’s Move” campaign to solve the epidemic of childhood obesity, Revolution Foods has had a hard time tapping into public school districts. A pilot program is currently underway in a small number of Washington, D.C. public schools with an evaluation based on cost, student participation and nutrition soon to be released.
Poverty and limited access to grocery stores in large parts of the state put New Mexico in dire need of programs that can provide fresh, affordable meals to all students. Bringing healthy food to our children will require a collaborative approach, with many organizations, funders, parents and schools working together to create new, perhaps even revolutionary solutions. Incremental change, or adding one new salad bar at a time, is one approach. But a big leap forward in the quality of food served to all kids might just be the radical shift we need. While it may not be able to single-handedly solve the hunger problem for children in New Mexico, Revolution Foods could be a savvy partner to have in the cafeteria.