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.

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The food was bright and fresh; no grease. But the scene didn't suggest home-cooked, slow-food purism. Fresh vegetables sometimes arrive already chopped. Produce isn't necessarily local. High-quality chicken shows up already baked and cut. A whiteboard reminded managers of the week's big number: the target MPLH, or meals per labor hour, measured to a tenth of a meal. Quesadillas with Spanish rice, burritos, spaghetti with little meatballs, turkey sandwiches — nothing looked all that complicated. But turning out 30,000 fresh meals at school-cafeteria prices, with exacting nutrition standards, can be nothing less than a science.

The National School Lunch Program has been around since 1946. The idea, initially, was to make sure kids got the calories they needed to focus on schoolwork and grow up healthy enough to serve in the military. (Schools also offered an outlet for USDA surplus.) But what exactly kids should eat — that's where it got tricky. The law mandated that schools serve a mix of proteins, grains, fruits, vegetables and dairy, but with so many loopholes and perverse incentives, it never really required wholesome food, and after waves of budget cuts, many schools couldn't afford it.

Big food manufacturers offered an easy solution: cheap, frozen kid favorites — fast food, essentially, but USDA-approved — that schools could simply warm and serve. Over time, cafeterias adapted to the food supply. Today, few are equipped for cooking from scratch.

Lots of school districts are working to develop better lunches. The bigger ones have it easier. They can concentrate higher-paid, higher-skilled staff in a central, professional kitchen and get by at most schools with cheaper heat-and-serve operations. "I assumed that central kitchens and satellite systems were inherently inferior to food cooked on-site," writes Janet Poppendieck, a leading scholar on hunger, in a new book about school lunches, Free for All. "Central kitchens, as it turns out, are far more likely to make their own sauces, stews, baked goods and salad dressings, and thus to control the use of preservatives, coloring agents, sodium and other unwelcome components." They also have enough purchasing power to get healthy-food suppliers to address their needs. When New York City schools couldn't get their yogurt supplier, Dannon, to sell them yogurt without high-fructose corn syrup, they found a local dairy company that would.

Revolution Foods was co-founded in 2006 by Kristin Groos Richmond and Kirsten Tobey, a pair of 20-something friends just out of business school, as a kind of central kitchen for hire. (It was a novel enough idea that they earned an invitation to the White House earlier this month to meet with the First Lady's staff and the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation.) Revolution Foods would buy all natural ingredients and prepare meals fresh every morning, then seal them and ship them across the region just in time for lunch. And if the company grew big fast, it could help encourage healthy-food suppliers to develop and package their products with schools in mind, as fast-food suppliers do. "Smaller districts with less clout are looking to the larger districts to improve product quality and open up distribution channels," says Kathy Lawrence, program director of School Food FOCUS, a nonprofit initiative that aims to aggregate the buying power of 29 large districts.

Revolution Foods hired Klein, a former operations director at Teach for America who had switched careers and gone to culinary school. That first year, she worked out of a tiny kitchen. Richmond and Tobey's friends would show up at 4:30 a.m. and volunteer on the line before heading off to work.

The company, which has grown to 260 employees, has learned a lot since then. Klein stopped to inspect a big plastic bin of black beans with fresh lime, corn, garlic and chopped onions. They tasted great, but she wasn't happy. "How did you chop the cilantro?" she asked a cook. If it's wet or chopped for too long, it will coat the beans and turn everything a murky green. "Kids eat with their eyes," she said. And green is dangerous; get it wrong, and they won't eat it.

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