Creating a school food revolution
By the time the average American child has finished grade 12, he or she has consumed 4,000 meals at school. What better place to start tackling the obesity crisis?
Kids don't like veggies. Healthy food is expensive. Cooking nutritious meals takes too long. Education boards won't convert. The problem is just too big to solve. The assumptions around school dinners are stubborn, but they did not stop two Californian mums from trying anyway.
In 2004, former teachers Kristin Richmond and Kirsten Tobey met during the first weeks of business school at UC-Berkeley. They soon recognised their shared passion for food and their desire to make a difference to children's lives. Their main aim, they agreed, was to transform nutrition in low-income communities. With healthy food often absent in the home situation, they felt that focussing on the food served at school could be a real chance to make a difference.
Studies have shown the need for a solution. Childhood obesity in America has more than tripled in the past thirty years. 27 per cent of Americans ages 17 to 24 are too overweight to serve in the military. Obesity-related costs are estimated to rise to 25 per cent of the national health expenditures soon. And it is estimated that almost half of children of colour in America will develop type II diabetes.
Paradoxically, federal and state dollars earmarked to support the nutrition of low-income students through the school food programme are instead fuelling the crisis. Processed foods are cheaper and easier to work with than fresh foods. Kirsten and Kristen knew they were up against huge financial and management challenges faced by schools. If they were going to convince principals and education boards, they needed to be competitive and practical.
In the first months, Richmond and Toby supplied nutritious lunches to four schools in the local area. Seven years on, Revolution Foods does its name justice. The company now serves over one million meals a week to school children across the country, with expansion still underway.
In order to achieve result on this scale, a radical rethink of the existing system was necessary, Kirsten Tobey told me in a phone interview. "For real change to happen in any system, it takes someone to take a challenging position and say: 'You know what? I'm going to start from scratch'." Revolution Foods set out to do just that.
Richmond and Toby built their own production line to keep costs down and control the products. To stay true to the company values, all Revolution Foods dishes are cooked by chefs. The duo ensures that each meal is inspired by their clients: kids. “We want children to taste a meal and feel that it was prepared by someone who respects food and respects them”, said Tobey.
Alongside providing nutritious meals, the Revolution Foods programme also has an educational value. Tobey explains how research into nutrition and food habits informs their work: "Scientists have established that it takes 12 to 25 ‘tries’ to develop a taste for a flavour. Many children have never eaten some of ingredients we use, like brown rice. By using wholefoods in all our meals, we introduce kids to new flavours which can benefit their eating habits for the rest of their lives."
Richmond and Toby’s unconventional approach didn't go unnoticed. They were both elected into the Ashoka Fellowship for social entrepreneurs and were listed on Fast Company's 50 Most Innovative Companies of 2011. Revolution Foods also made it onto many ‘growth lists’, including Inc 500's 2012 List of Fastest Growing Privately Held Companies, where they came 6th in the food and beverages category.
As Revolution Foods continues to grow in America, healthy school food is being pushed higher onto the public agenda in other parts of the world. In the UK, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver started his own ‘food revolution’ by providing toolkits for pupils, parents, teachers and policy makers.
In Ireland, Ashoka Fellow Dave Egan has started a peer-to-peer school-fruit programme, where senior students run micro-businesses selling and promoting healthy snacks. Egan also provides a consultancy service for school canteens and plans to launch a school food quality assurance scheme.
States-side meanwhile, Richmond and Toby are branching out to the retail market. By popular demand, Revolution Foods launched shop range of 'grab & go' meals last month. Each meal kit includes at least 7 grams of whole grains and a serving of fruit. The cheese is made from milk not treated with rBST growth hormone and all meat is humanely raised, without antibiotics, nitrites or nitrates.
"We don't aim to offer an alternative to home cooking, but rather an alternative to the processed junk food that is so widely available", said Tobey. "Parents buy the kits for on-the-go, or as lunch boxes for children at schools where we don't yet operate. Our combination of healthy and convenient food appeals to them." The meal kits are already available in several large supermarkets chains and the distribution network will roll out further over the next months.
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Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on the Virgin.com People & Planet blog and is cross-posted here with permission.