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School lunches get a revolution

Fresh local meals come to BPS kids with new vendor Revolution Foods

Jule Pattison-Gordon

Food in the Boston Public Schools may soon come from greener pastures. The school district has inked a deal with national school meal provider, Revolution Foods.

When BPS officials gathered for a city council hearing in May, they said they had a problem: School-provided meals comprise a significant portion of student’s daily food, but too often went uneaten. Seventy-five percent of schools received their food plastic-wrapped from the vendor, and when it was served, students often found it visually unappealing, they said.

In a recent Banner conversation, Ayanna Pressley, city council chair of the committee on Healthy Women, Families and Communities, said she learned students frequently threw the meals out.

“Many of our children’s only opportunity for a balanced meal is at school [but] the food is not palatable — it doesn’t taste good to them,” Pressley. “Whatever their age, whatever their school, the one thing students raised time and time again [to me] was, ‘We don’t like the food.’”

Turned off by meal reminiscent of airplane food, many students bypassed the school options — which in turn meant BPS lost out on federal reimbursement for that meal’s ingredients and labor costs. Given that many students receive 30 to 50 percent of their daily food intake at school, it also means a lost opportunity to provide them nourishing fare, Laura Benavidez, BPS executive director for Food and Nutrition Services, said at the May hearing. Improvements could result in both healthier, better-fed students — who are thus better able to concentrate on academics — and a district with one fewer expense worry.

Now school officials think they have an answer. Revolution Foods signed on to provide prepared breakfast and lunches to BPS from 2017 to 2020. The firm already serves 22 school districts nationwide, and 25 school campuses in Massachusetts. Its owners tout its reputation for fresh, healthy meals with local ties.

“Our mission is to create lifelong healthy eaters, and it starts by introducing a variety of healthy ingredients and culturally relevant menu items that drive student consumption,” Kristin Groos Richmond, CEO and founder of Revolution Foods, said in a statement. “Revolution Foods is the only company on a national level to offer a clean-label supply chain and student inspired, chef-crafted meals.”

Adhering to so-called “clean label” standards means that the foods contain no artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners, preservatives or additives. Revolution Foods also commits to no trans fats or high fructose corn syrup and states that food is minimally-processed. Dairy products will be hormone-free. After the vendor switch, only 1 percent of BPS’s food will be frozen. That food will be reserved for use in emergencies and also will follow clean label standards.

The company emphasizes creating community-specific menus that respond to students and families’ feedback on taste, nutrition and the kinds of foods they eat at home. Pressley commented that the focus on culturally relevant food both provides students familiar — and thus more enticing — food, and is an opportunity for students in diverse school populations to learn about new cultures. Via food tastings, education events, open houses and other engagement, Revolution Foods seeks to solicit family response to help shape meal decisions.

A level of local fare and collaboration also is on the menu: Revolution Foods plans to use some local food distribution and nutrition education partners such as Chelase’s Rosev Dairy, Boston’s Let’s Talk About Food and Commonwealth Kitchen and Jamaica Plain’s Community servings.

The firm also is looking at the logistical side of boosting meal participation. One idea under consideration is to serve breakfast in the classroom after morning bell, as opposed to at a separate location before school hours.

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