SF school to get healthier lunches

By Jill Tucker | SF Chronicle

Sixth-grader Evan Feist eats a lunch of Cajun chicken and 
sticky rice. All the meals use local ingredients and contain
no high-fructose corn syrup. Photo: Lacy Atkins, The Chronicle / SF

Ajna Singh, 12, nibbled on the cheese enchilada with a side of rice served in the Oakland School for the Arts cafeteria, using fingers instead of a fork.

In between bites and balancing the meal's recyclable tray in one hand, she said she liked the school food, which included rice, packaged grapes, milk, dinner rolls and a self-serve tray of broccoli.

"It's especially better than my mom's cooking," Ajna said. "I'm appreciative."

Not all of the sixth-grader's classmates at the Oakland charter school were as enamored with the offerings, provided by Oakland's Revolution Foods, with one seventh-grader describing the meals as "like, nasty."

The indiscriminate tastes of preteens notwithstanding, the Oakland students are getting what many parents and school officials across the country consider the top-shelf version of school lunches.

Revolution Foods never serves reheated tater tots, greasy pizza or mystery meat. The meals are prepared by chefs using local ingredients, no high-fructose corn syrup, and nothing is ever fried or frozen. They are in the hands of students 24 hours after coming out of the oven.

Starting Monday, those fresh meals will be in San Francisco schools.

While Revolution Foods has been around since 2006, few large school districts have signed up, despite parental pleas for higher quality cafeteria food, because of the higher cost.

But over the last few years, Revolution has been among the fastest-growing urban companies, with production centers in California, Colorado, Texas and the East Coast, serving more than 200,000 meals every day to children in private, public and nonprofit school programs.

Cost savings came with the growth, allowing Revolution Foods to compete for bigger contracts, going up against national school lunch providers offering frozen meals shipped to school sites all over the country.

The company, created by two moms as part of a business school project, nabbed its biggest client yet in December, when it beat out bigger companies to get a $9 million contract with San Francisco Unified.

"We're really excited," said co-founder Kristin Groos Richmond. "I feel like it's such an honor for us."

Adding workers 


In less than a month, Revolution has had to prepare for serving 33,000 meals to 114 schools in San Francisco and has added 40 workers to the Oakland site, bringing the company's total to 965 employees nationwide.

In addition, the company often uses local suppliers, including meat from Diestel Turkey Ranch in Sonora and rice from family-owned Massa Organics in the Chico area.

To meet the increasing demand, Revolution Foods has shifts going 24 hours a day, prepping, cooking, refrigerating and packaging the meals.

"There are so many school organizations out there who want good food for kids," Richmond said.

Richmond started the company with UC Berkeley classmate Kirsten Tobey, creating the equivalent of a high-tech Silicon Valley startup in the food industry.

At the time, small, parent-driven movements were kicking soda and junk food out of schools, and Berkeley chef Alice Waters was making sure that children knew what kale looked like through school garden programs.

Richmond was pregnant at the time, and she was advised to wait to kick off such an ambitious endeavor.

She refused to listen.

"I remember thinking at the time, no way," she said. "This is the right time for this movement in the country."

The company has had some growing pains in recent years, including tangles with labor unions in New Orleans.

The new contract in San Francisco will require working closely with union cafeteria workers who will reheat and serve the food. School board members reiterated their support for the union workers before unanimously approving the Revolution Foods contract.

Cost increase 


Despite the concerns raised by labor organizations, district officials and parents celebrated the new contract, which will cost $1.95 per lunch, up from $1.79 charged by the previous provider, Preferred Meal Systems. The 18-month contract caps the costs at $9 million annually.

Students not eligible for free or reduced-price meals will be charged $3 for lunch and $1.50 for breakfast.

District officials hope that more students will buy the meals, helping to offset the higher costs.

At Oakland School for the Arts, which serves about 50 Revolution Foods lunches each day, several students are willing to pay the $4.50 the school charges.

Sure, some of the veggies - squash, beans and carrots - are sometimes a hard sell, said Kai Johnson, who monitors the cafeteria during lunch.

"It's just like at home, when you're sitting at the table saying 'eat your vegetables,' " she said. But with Revolution Foods, "it's not an option. They're going to eat healthy no matter what."