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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Schools need kids to buy lunch. It's a volume business. The big costs are pretty much fixed. If too many kids bring meals from home or eat from a vending machine or leave campus, revenue drops and the cafeteria finances fall apart. This is one more reason schools serve so much fast food, and it puts Klein in a tough position. When Revolution Foods signs on a new school, most kids there are used to eating the lunches they'd probably choose in a world with no adult supervision. If she shows up with too weird a menu, kids will revolt. "You have to earn their trust," Klein says. This means she tries to offer healthier versions of the foods they already know and love, along with simple, kid-friendly introductions to a wholesome grownup diet. It's a process for everyone.

Klein walked to a row of ovens to check on some pizzas. It took her a while to get pizza right. Her first pizza was plenty healthy, with a whole-wheat crust, a clean tomato sauce (no corn syrup, no artificial stuff) and lean, all-natural turkey sausage. But for efficiency's sake, she baked rectangular, pan-size pies, which meant rectangular pieces. This was weird; kids wanted triangles. So she tried personal pizzas, still pretty efficient. These worked. Now's she after a lean turkey version of pepperoni, which kids request more than any other item.

She also has kids eating cold sandwich wraps, with baked chicken and fresh, raw vegetables. They bombed at first, but with some time, a new recipe and dipping sauce on the side, kids ate them up. And she serves butternut squash. A lot of kids didn't know what it was at first; some thought it was hot mango. But with a little coaxing, they tried it. "It's one of the favorite vegetables we serve now," Klein says.

She gathered some chefs around a prep table to decide which meals would go out for kid testing. There were two salads topped with beans, three different pastas in Alfredo sauce (orecchiette, penne and rotini) and two kinds of spaghetti. She set the spaghettis side by side. The whole-wheat version was already being served in cafeterias, but response to the buckwheat-colored noodles hadn't been great. "Even though we want the whole wheat, it's tanking our visual appeal," she said. Plus, it wouldn't cook quite as soft without turning to mush. "Kids like a softer noodle," she explained. The new spaghetti, enriched with wheat flour but more traditional-looking, seemed better. She took a bite, then another. "I think this is awesome," she said.

With a Side of Ranch
Back from school, Klein sat down at her desk with a stack of feedback from the kids. For salads, chickpeas rated better than black beans. Ranch dressing went over better than vinaigrette. ("It's, like, all up in my throat," one boy said — too sour.) Klein has found that kids will eat just about anything if it comes with a side of ranch. As for spaghetti, everyone preferred the enriched pasta to the whole grain, which kids agreed was too firm. Or, as one of them put it, "make it taste more homemade by using, like, normal ingredients."

Two or three kids asked for fruit salad. "I would love to do fruit salad," Klein said wistfully. But cutting and mixing fruit means labor costs she can't afford. Revolution Foods, which expects to make about $20 million in revenue this year, has yet to make a profit, but it has committed investors — the kind who back charter schools and other socially responsible ventures. The company prices meals very close to the reimbursement rate, once it factors in an extra 22ยข that California gives for every free or reduced-price lunch. But schools still need staff to serve the kids and clean up and fill out piles of USDA paperwork, which pushes up the real cost of meals. Some schools can break even or come close, depending on a bunch of factors, including how much they pay for labor and how many kids eat full-price meals. More often, schools accept some losses to improve their food. Klein has to keep finding efficiencies.

Some of the kids' responses, she didn't expect. A bunch of kids liked the Alfredo sauce, but many thought it was too dry, maybe from reheating. Another kid wrote, "I like the carrots. They were cold and fresh." "That's a great point!" Klein said — a little thing, easy to overlook. "We have to make sure we instruct the schools to keep things like that in the fridge."

She looked tired. But she smiled. "This job is constant learning," she said. With that, it was back to the kitchen.

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