The War Over America's Lunch

Getting kids to want to eat healthy food isn't easy. Serving wholesome fare at fast-food prices is even harder. How Revolution Foods is helping school cafeterias swear off frozen pizza and fries

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Robyn Twomey for TIME

A focus group at Lionel Wilson College Prep Academy Middle and High School in Oakland, CA taste tests southwest chicken salad with black beans, corn and organic ranch dressing.

"Beans??" The girl said.

She was sitting near the end of a long table in the cafeteria at Lionel Wilson College Preparatory Academy, a charter school in Oakland, Calif. There were about a dozen middle schoolers in all, taste testing new school-lunch ideas. The girl was a tough customer, by far the toughest at the table. (She had just refused to sample a pasta with Alfredo sauce: "I don't like to try things I haven't seen before," she said flatly.) The offending item? A salad with fresh greens, roasted pumpkin seeds, corn, shredded cheese and black beans, tossed in organic ranch dressing.

Amy Klein, the grownup hovering nearby, knew the beans were a gamble. As the executive chef at Revolution Foods, a fast-growing for-profit company that caters healthy breakfasts and lunches to mostly lower-income schools, Klein has gone from feeding a few hundred kids in 2006 to about 30,000 today. In that time, she's learned some things. Like, for the kids she serves, food is either "good" or "weird." Good gets eaten; weird gets tossed or prompts kids to skip the lunch line altogether. And beans on salad were probably going to be weird.

"How would you make it better?" Klein asked, warm and energetic. "You can say, 'Don't put beans on my salad!'"

"I can touch my eyeball," the girl said. She touched her eyeball. The kids around her started touching their eyeballs too.

A Michelin-star dining room, this is not. But it might require just as much imagination. Federal reimbursement for school lunches doesn't go very far. Kids eat free if their parents earn less than 130% of the poverty line — about $28,000 for a family of four — and schools are reimbursed $2.68 per meal. Families who earn up to 185% of the poverty line, about $40,000 a year, qualify for a reduced-price lunch; kids pay a little bit, and schools get $2.28 from the government. And many schools subsidize full-price meals by charging less than it takes to produce them. After accounting for labor, transportation and other costs, cafeteria directors typically have about $1 left over for the actual food. Frozen pizza, fries and chocolate milk have become school-lunch staples because it's tough to do better.

But school lunch is facing new scrutiny. There's even a prime-time network reality show (Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution) that takes place in school cafeterias and has stars bickering about chicken nuggets and federally mandated grain servings. This is partly due to the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, a once-every-five-years event when Congress decides how much federal money schools will receive under the National School Lunch Program. But it's more than that. This year's vote comes at a time of unprecedented attention to childhood obesity.

The Institute of Medicine, a division of the National Academy of Sciences, has found that a typical high school lunch contains more than twice the recommended limit for sodium intake, too many calories from sugar and saturated fat and too few fruits and vegetables. Congress seems likely to raise federal reimbursements by a few cents — which is more than it sounds but still less than the White House requested — and tie the increase to more thorough health standards.

But this will mean really hard work in school kitchens across the country. They'll be asked to serve wholesome meals at fast-food prices. And not just that: kids have to like them.

Assembling the Day's Meals
A couple of days earlier, Klein was flying around her kitchen. It's the size of a warehouse, near the Oakland airport. (She's got others like it now in Los Angeles, Denver and Washington, and the company is close to expanding into New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Louisiana.) Two dozen or so Revolution Foods employees were assembling the day's meals, thousands of them, on long stainless-steel tables.

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