A dozen children jostle to watch Revolution Foods chef Amy Klein shake up salad dressing in a Mason jar. When Klein asks who wants to help measure out sesame oil, the kids’ hands shoot up. When it’s time to sample the dressing — a blend of fresh lemon juice, oil, sugar and spices — on fresh cucumber rounds, most of the kids approve, but one kindergarten-age boy in an orange T-shirt hands back his fork.
“This is not good!” asserts the little guy.
“What do you think would make it better?” Klein asks him.
Klein’s question is key to how Revolution Foods handles its prime challenge: How do you make healthy school lunches children will actually eat? The answer: Involve the children in the recipe creation.
The approach is clearly working. Today, this school lunch provider, recognized as a 2016 Best for Customers honoree, supplies 1.5 million meals a week to 1,000 schools in 30 major cities, and brings in about $125 million in annual revenue.
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Over the years, company co-founders Kristin Richmond and Kirsten Tobey have grown their families alongside their company. Richmond was pregnant with her first child when they launched in 2006. With five kids between them today, they call themselves “Moms on a Mission.”
Revolution Foods’ aim is to use what has long been regarded as foodie purgatory — the school lunch program — to create lifelong habits of healthy eating. Its lunches are prepared in central kitchens and reheated in retherm ovens at schools, not unlike many school lunches have been readied in recent years. But these healthy school lunches are different: They contain high-quality ingredients, with an emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains. The meals also stand out for what they exclude: high-fructose corn syrup and artificial colors, flavors and sweeteners.
Making Better School Lunches Widely Available
Tobey estimates that 80 percent of the students Revolution Foods serves qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches under government programs. Some kids eat breakfast, lunch and dinner at school and after-school programs. And that makes food quality especially important, says Jennifer Puthoff, director of childcare and after-school programs at YMCA of Silicon Valley, which has worked with Revolution Foods since the Y started serving meals in 2009.
“There’s nothing worse than providing poor-quality food to low-income families,” Puthoff says. “We’d just be doing a disservice to families in a long-term way.”
In addition to taste-testing, kids have been involved in Revolution Foods-sponsored cooking competitions, and they frequently visit and tour Revolution Foods’ Oakland, California, kitchen.
Urban schools support both Revolution Foods’s mission and its bottom line, Tobey says. The schools tend to be clustered in densely populated areas, and many of them serve three meals a day. “That’s a higher-volume delivery for us, so we have the opportunity to impact more kids with one delivery of food,” Tobey says. “And the federally subsidized meal program is a very reliable source of revenue for us.”
To be affordable to schools, Revolution Foods needs to keep its per-meal price right around the $3 mark for the government to reimburse for each meal. Keeping costs low without resorting to lower-quality ingredients has required a carefully built supply chain.
“Finding the right size and scale of suppliers is important,” Tobey says. “A huge multinational company is not going to see us as a meaningful source of growth, but a strong, midsized regional company sees us as access into a really important market for them — families with kids in schools.”
For example, Revolution Foods gets turkey from Diestel Turkey Ranch in the Sierra Foothills. The ranch follows sustainable practices and does not add antibiotics to its turkey feed.
“We have found that working with companies like Diestel, we can move quickly because we are both entrepreneurial and eager to grow and expand our impact,” Tobey says. “The Diestel family values having their turkey reach so many kids across the country, and we value the quality and integrity behind the products we buy from them.”
As Revolution Foods grows, it’s been able to exert more and more price pressure on suppliers, Tobey says. But despite efforts to keep prices down, the meals are more expensive than what most school districts pay otherwise. Tobey acknowledges that Revolution Foods is a premium vendor with both higher quality and a higher price point than other school lunch suppliers. However, it’s not more expensive than other providers offering “clean-label meals,” she says. “When a school district has strong food standards detailed in their request for proposals, Revolution Foods is frequently the lowest bidder,” Tobey says.
Revolution has tweaked meals to fit regional preferences and kiddie culinary tastes, all while adhering to the quality standards the company sets for itself. Its chefs even create new meals based on schools’ requests; for example, the company responded to San Francisco Unified School District’s request for a breakfast item to suit Asian tastes with a dish the kids named the Sunshine Breakfast Rice Bowl.
Growth Spurt: From Healthy School Lunch Programs to Grocery Store Offerings
A decade ago, co-founders Tobey and Richmond started their company in Oakland, California, just after both graduated from the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, where they bonded over their mutual passion for education. At first, they served Oakland and Los Angeles charter schools.
Charter schools have been early adopters nationwide, in part because they tend to have more autonomy in choosing a food vendor, but the company has expanded beyond that core group of customers.
“Most of our growth in the last few years has been in public district schools, like Newark Public Schools and San Francisco Unified School District,” Tobey says.
More than five years ago, the founders decided to seek B Corporation certification, which they see as a third-party endorsement of their mission and commitment to making an impact. “We have found it is a great shorthand way to demonstrate that we are a mission-driven business,” Tobey says.
Soon the company expanded into consumer packaged goods after a loan from Whole Foods Market supported a foray into breakfast cereals, nut butters and other supermarket products. In 2014, a $30 million investment from AOL co-founder Steve Case’s venture fund, Revolution Foods Growth, enabled them to introduce a refrigerated meal kit that competes with that nutritional antihero, Lunchables. Case says Revolution Foods caught his attention as a mission-driven company that was ready to take it to the next level.
“Revolution Foods has established an authentic brand with a mission that moms and kids admire, trust and want to make part of their lives,” Case says. “They are now poised to break through and disrupt the $5 trillion food industry. They’ve built the foundation for an iconic change-the-world company over the past decade, and I believe they have the opportunity to become a Fortune 500 company over the next decade.”
In addition to Case’s Revolution Growth, Revolution Foods’ investors include Catamount Ventures, DBL Investors, Oak Investment Partners, The Westly Group, Emerson Collective, and NewSchools Venture Fund. The company is profitable in each of its regions, Tobey says, but with investors’ approval, they’re strategically routing money into expansion instead of reporting an overall profit.
One percent of Revolution Foods’ retail-product sales go to grants that help schools buy refrigerators and retherm ovens. So far, Revolution Foods has granted $6,600 each to 22 schools for equipment. This fall, Revolution Foods plans to launch three new meal kits, including its first breakfast and dinner products.
“From my experience, success comes with perseverance,” Case says. “If you want to have impact and change the world, it’s important to focus on long-term vision and have a built-to-last rather than a built-to-flip mindset.”
Moms on a Mission at Retail Scale
Revolution Foods’ “powerfood” Lunch Bundle includes trail mix, Jack cheese, veggie crisps, almonds and gluten-free crackers; the “on-the-go” Bundle Box includes humanely raised/antibiotic-free meats, natural cheese, multigrain crackers and a fruit snack, all with no artificial flavors or preservatives.
But the company’s Lunch Bundles and other retail meal kits have been criticized for not being as wholesome as its cafeteria meals. The website Calorie Count, for example, gave an F grade to Revolution Foods’ Ham and Cheddar Meal Kit noting that it contained too much sugar (14 grams). The product that replaced it, the Ham & Cheddar Bundle Box, has a similar Nutrition Facts panel; the fat and calories are slightly reduced, but it still has 14 grams of sugar. (Update since the article went to print in B Magazine: The Bundle Box and Meal Kits are no longer on the market; they have been replaced by Bundle Box Popcorn Chicken Dippers and Bundle Box Hummus Dippers. The new Bundle Box Popcorn Chicken Dippers also has 14 grams of sugar; the Bundle Box Hummus Dippers has 15 grams of sugar.)
One of Revolution’s vocal critics is Dana Woldow, founder of the school-advocacy program Parents, Educators & Advocates Connection for Healthy School Food. Woldow was one of the people who helped lobby to bring Revolution its most prestigious contract — a $9 million annual contract to provide meals to San Francisco Unified School District, which began in December 2012. Still, she has criticized the company for what she says are hyperbolic claims. About Revolution Foods’ grocery-store bundles, Woldow says, “In addition to being overpriced and overpackaged, these products are all high in both sugars and sodium, and not particularly nutritious. It’s a pretty high price to pay for ‘convenience.’”
Yet Woldow praises Revolution’s better school lunches. “Any school district that’s not in a position to cook its own meals can’t do better than Revolution Foods,” Woldow told San Francisco magazine in November 2015. “It’s the best thing going if you’re on the national school-lunch program.”
Tobey sees the retail meal kits as helping busy families perform the balancing act between nutrition, expediency and kid appeal, something that she and co-founder Richmond totally get. “We continually review our products to source the best ingredients, provide whole-grain nutrition, and reduce sugars all while maintaining the deliciousness kids enjoy,” Tobey says.
School Food That Passes the True Test
At the Joyce Ellington Branch Library in San Jose, Revolution Food’s entrees seem to be making the cut. Khoa Nguyen, a friendly 7-year-old with a straight line of bangs across his forehead, squeezes barbecue sauce onto his chicken patty before replacing the whole-wheat bun and lettuce leaf, taking a bite, and declaring it “pretty good.” Other kids go straight for the fresh nectarine.
This library is one of many sites where the YMCA of Silicon Valley served Revolution Food’s meals this summer — about 200,000 meals over the course of the summer program. Free meals are offered to any child who comes to the library, from the homeless and low-income kids who are bought daily by their daycare providers, to families just stopping by to return books. Before the Y served meals, the program dealt with a lot of behavior problems at after-school programs, Puthoff says. Now, many participants tell her they come for the food.
“They’re starving by the time they get here,” Puthoff says, and many won’t get anything to eat when they get home. “Kids aren’t able to focus on homework if they aren’t well-fed.” Her voice rises with emotion as she recounts one of the stories that stays with her: the story of a young boy, who, after being suspended from school, begged her to be allowed to continue coming to the Y, saying, “If I can’t come to the after-school program, then I’m not going to eat today.” He stayed.
Puthoff won’t work with any vendor except Revolution Foods, which she considers a partner in her mission. “No other company cares so much about what is being fed to our kids.”
This article originally appeared as “Fast Growth, Slow Food: Reinventing School Lunch” in the Fall 2016 issue of B Magazine.
Note: This article has been updated since press to reflect the company’s retail product changes.
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