When Kirsten Tobey and Kristin Richmond met at the Haas School of Business at the University of California-Berkeley, they found they had a shared interest in helping fill a need in schools.
But which need? To find their mission, Tobey, a former teacher, and Richmond, who worked in school administration, turned to former colleagues, teachers and principals.
“We heard over and over again that one of the biggest unaddressed needs in school is few if any options for healthy school meals, especially schools in low-income neighborhoods where meals are provided,” said 35-year-old Tobey.
One person in particular made an impression: a physical education teacher tasked with instructing children about nutrition and health. “He said, ‘I had to stop going into the lunchroom, because kids would stand up and call me a hypocrite. They were being served the opposite of what I’ve been telling them to eat.’ I was feeling the pain of that teacher wanting to do the best for those children,” Tobey recalled.
So Revolution Foods was born. The Oakland, Calif.-based company seeks to provide nutritious hand-prepared meals in schools. Some of their meals, which must comply with National School Lunch Program guidelines, include pasta Alfredo with white beans, butternut squash and fruit; or a cheeseburger with baby carrots and fruit on the side.
In 2006, the duo started a pilot meal program at an Oakland school with their six employees. Revolution Foods has since opened seven commercial kitchens in parts of California, Colorado, Louisiana, Texas, the Mid-Atlantic region and New York metropolitan area with their now 1,000 employees.
Tobey and Richmond structured Revolution Foods as a for-profit company, which frees them to pursue funding from private investors, not just foundations and nonprofits.
In order to stay competitive, Revolution Foods tries to keep costs down by working with food suppliers with similar missions of getting well-balanced meals to children, said Tobey. The company also uses less costly ingredients when possible, such as foregoing tasty but pricey berries for less expensive seasonal fruits.
One of the challenges the company still faces is getting children, who might be used to more processed foods, on board when serving fresh foods. “We’ve done a lot of work with schools to encourage kids to try new things and adopt new eating habits. You can’t just show up with a healthy meal program and expect kids to adopt it on day one,” said Tobey.
Chefs from Revolution Foods visit schools new to the program and provide samples of the menus. Also, students can make a field trip to the company’s commercial kitchens and see the food being produced by hand, rather than manufactured by a machine, which can be “eye-opening,” she said.
Tobey added that having two children gives her firsthand knowledge of the challenges parents face when trying to provide a balanced meal to sometimes picky eaters. “When kids are surrounded by so many unhealthy options, you need to instill in them the ability to make healthy decisions themselves.”
For the record, her daughters are fond of the cheese pizza and the peanut butter and jelly meal kits.
In February 2012, PBS NewsHour correspondent Paul Solman included Revolution Foods in a report about “benefit corporations” that seek to have a positive impact on society in addition to making a profit:
Since being featured in Solman’s report, Revolution Foods has started selling its meals at some retail stores, including Whole Foods and Target. The stores had healthy snack options available but not many healthy meal kits, said Tobey.
Feedback from the schoolchildren has helped inform those retail meals, she added. “We’ve tried some things that didn’t work.”
For example, you won’t find Cheddar cheese quesadillas on the shelves. Some of the schoolchildren grew up in Latino homes, and they said quesadillas should be made with “white cheese” not orange, Tobey explained. So Revolution Foods switched to Monterey Jack.
The PBS NewsHour’s Social Entrepreneurship page currently is focusing on individuals and organizations that help children. Give us your suggestions for more people to profile in the comments section below or tweet us.