• U.S.

The War Over America’s Lunch

12 minute read
Douglas Mcgray

“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!'”

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“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.

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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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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.

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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.

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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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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.

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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.”

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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 22¢ 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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