Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - April 16, 2008

The lunch revolution

East Palo Alto schools branch out, moving ahead of the organic pack

Students at East Palo Alto Charter School took a while to develop a taste for tomatoes instead of Doritos. "Everyone was freaking out," eighth-grader Eddy Lowe said in describing a recent lunchroom shift from processed foods to a new, fresh menu.

"At first, nobody wanted to touch it. Then we did a taste-test," Lowe said.

Then students were asked to enter into the dialog on how foods should be provided to the school. They offered constructive feedback to school administrators and their new food distributor, Revolution Foods.

A social venture co-founded by two University of California at Berkeley's Haas School of Business graduates, Revolution Foods distributes fresh, organic and local foods to students at East Palo Alto Charter School and East Palo Alto Academy Elementary School, among other Bay Area educational institutions. By serving "natural-quality" meat and dairy products, all hormone free, along with fruits and vegetables at every meal, Revolution Foods is changing what students eat — and want to eat — at lunch.

"Packaged organic carrots is as packaged as we get," joked Kristin Richmond, co-founder of Revolution Foods. Though the transition wasn't easy, Lowe said most of his fellow students have gotten used to the school's healthier lunches — and actually like them. Typical lunches include entrees such as a hearty chili of black and pinto beans, bell peppers, carrots and onions, with side options including oranges and cornbread muffins.

Revolution Foods' average meal price is $4, but the company offers discounts to schools serving a significant portion of low-income students. Additionally, its meals are reimbursable through the National School Lunch Program, which subsidizes lunches for 30 million low-income children nationwide.

Many students at East Palo Alto Charter School qualify for the program, meaning the healthful dishes from Revolution Foods are federally subsidized.

Furthermore, by contracting with Revolution Foods instead of Ravenswood School District, the charter school saves on paying encroachment fees.

"The [Ravenswood] school district runs a deficit for having food services," East Palo Alto Charter School Principal Allison Leslie explained. "If they don't break even, then the cost is shared. The encroachment for food services was $35,000 for the [previous] year. East Palo Alto Charter School was paying — we were being charged that money to have the services," she said.

Because it is the first year providing the new, unprocessed menu, it is unclear whether the school will suffer additional costs associated with the more healthful menu. But, according to Leslie, "the point was less about the cost. It was more about providing organic food to students and modeling our teaching in the school garden. ... The food that we're putting into our bodies is the same that we have in our garden — nutritious food," she said.

Nicki Smith, principal of the East Palo Alto Academy Elementary School, said any additional costs associated with non-processed school lunches are "worth it."

"When [students] didn't like the things that were different, they started eating the fruits, which was something that we never saw happen before," Smith said.

"Now, they are branching out," she said with satisfaction.

Typical, processed school lunches are of poor quality, Smith said. "It's fatty and there's lots of sugar and salt. We think there is a correlation between the quality of the nutrition and kids' ability to settle in, focus and learn. Kids get the sugar high and then you get that drop in energy. So, this year we decided to go organic. ... Our children are definitely more settled this year," she said.

—Veronica Sudekum

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