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Taking the carrot approach to school lunch

Anne-Marie Mcreynolds/Collective Roots

San Francisco Unified School District recently hired a new meal provider, Revolution Foods – a private company based in Oakland that serves healthier, all-natural meals to over 600 lunchrooms nationwide.

One of them is the East Palo Alto Charter School. As you’ll hear in this piece from our archives, KALW’s Nancy Mullane reports on the challenge of getting kids who were used to eating corn-dogs and pizza to embrace the new, healthier menu.

It’s a long stretch of time from 8am – when school starts – to 11:30am. That’s when the kindergartners at East Palo Alto Charter School line up outside the cafeteria to eat their lunch.

As they approach the counter, the five-year-olds are just tall enough to grab a white plastic tray, hand over their free-lunch photo ID card to the cafeteria manager, and pick out what they want to eat. Today there’s macaroni and cheese, a ham and cheese sandwich, apples, carrots, and a carton of low-fat or non-fat milk.

Saree Mading is the school’s assistant principal, and during lunch, she makes sure all the students eat: “Because a lot of our students are on free and reduced lunch, so we have to serve them, but if they don’t want it they know they can place it here and it will go back in the bin and come back. But they have to pick up something because we’re checking to make sure every child is eating, that everyone gets nourishment before they go out and play,” says Mading.

Sitting down at long tables, their feet barely touching the ground, the kids grab their biodegradable forks, and dig into their macaroni and cheese. They are a hungry lot. But today’s lunch isn’t their favorite, some students say.

Standing just outside the cafeteria, holding her own single serving of macaroni and cheese, is teacher Katie Kling.

“It’s really good. I was actually quite happy when they announced this morning that it was going to be macaroni and cheese and I knew I didn’t have lunch,” says Kling.

With just a half hour for lunch, Kling says about half of the staff pay the $3.50 to eat what the kids eat. But she says it wasn’t always like that.

“The food we had here before I would never have eaten,” Kling admits. “It was like bad kid food. Bad pizza, bad chicken nuggets every day. Never fruit, never anything else. It’s just changed our whole school. Kids aren’t allowed to bring hot-Cheetos anymore. They’re only allowed to bring a normal snack size of chips and no soda. It’s changed everything across our school.”

The change began three years ago. The charter school was receiving three services from their local school district: transportation, special education, and food. But Mading says, the food being provided by the Ravenswood City School District wasn’t meeting the nutritional needs of East Palo Alto Charter’s students, and that was affecting their ability to concentrate and to learn.

“The food at the time was a lot of processed food. The chocolate muffins in the morning, lots of sweet sugary things that were just not okay. And unfortunately, it wasn’t just this district. It’s nationwide. Kids are getting processed food that aren’t healthy, and aren’t sustaining them through the day. So as a charter school we took to our parents the option to switch,” says Mading.

After some taste tests and after considering the cost of the lunch options, the parents voted unanimously to make the change. The school hired Oakland based Revolution Foods as its new food provider at only a slightly greater cost than what the school was already paying the district.  Nearly 90 percent of the students at the school qualify for free or reduced lunches based on the family’s income. That means the federal government reimburses the school a fixed rate for each lunch.

While the parents were happy with the choice, Mading says the change came as a surprise to the students.

“They’d gone off on their winter break and came back to new food and were just like, I’m not eating, I’m not eating, I’m not eating. In the beginning it wasn’t as good, but Revolution Foods really has its ear to the ground, and they try to work around what the kids prefer,” says Mading.

Today, the kindergarteners seem to like it. After they finish their lunches, there’s hardly anything left on their trays for the compost bins. Then the older students begin to cycle through.

The sixth graders are far more selective. While some grab trays, most just pick up a bag of veggies and fruit, or a sandwich. Some walk away empty-handed. Alexis Moreno Nava is waiting his turn in line. He says he liked the old food better.

“For breakfast they used to give us chocolate muffins and they also used to give waffles with syrup and corn dogs and everything,” says Nava. “I don’t like the food that they give here now.”

After the last of the students have eaten their lunch, I decide to take a taste test. The cafeteria manager puts together a tray representing a complete lunch for me to try.

First, I’m going to start with the macaroni and cheese. It comes in a little black compostable tray with a plastic cover on it. It tastes very buttery and the macaroni is nicely cooked, it’s cooked just right. Now I’m going to eat the Granny Smith apples and the little baby carrots. The baby carrots are delicious. I noticed a lot of students were carrying these bags around.

So what’s the trick to making a tasty, nutritional, all-natural lunch that all students will eat? I drive over to Revolution Foods in Oakland to find out.

Amy Klein, a former teacher and now Revolution Foods’ executive chef, meets me down on the main floor of the company’s massive, shiny, clean kitchen and takes me on a tour. There are wall-size ovens and deep rectangular skillets that tip so they can pour the food into manageable containers.

“So my job as executive chef is to refine our food, listen to our students and put what the students want up against our health standards, our ingredient standards, the USDA reimbursable guidelines, and try to net out a meal that is student approved, kid-friendly, that tastes good, that’s food-safe,” says Klein.

But even if Revolution Foods has schools on board, convincing kids to change their dining habits can be a challenge.

“I don’t get frustrated any more because I’ve learned it’s not a sprint, this is a marathon. We’ve got to get out there. We’ve got to touch these kids every day as much as we can with this information. We don’t get nutrition education to them every single day but we’re working on it, we’re really working on it,” says Klein.

While schools can’t control what kids eat off campus, they are finding ways to extend their students’ education from the classroom to the lunchroom.

This story originally aired on April 26, 2010.

Crosscurrents school lunch
Nancy Mullane develops, reports, and produces feature stories for This American Life, National Public Radio, and KALW. She is the author of the book Life After Murder: Five Men in Search of Redemption.