Students use tongs to fill up their plates with healthy lunch options at a school salad bar
Mike Blake/Reuters

What does it take to transform cafeteria options in city schools for the better?

For the last decade or so, a social and political war has been underway, and in an unlikely setting: the school cafeteria. With the healthy foods movement came activist chefs like Jamie Oliver traversing the country transforming what lunch rooms serve, parents demanding better for their school-age children, and backlash from some claiming kids won’t eat less-salty, less-fatty school lunches.

But cutting through all the noise, what does it really take to turn around a city’s school meal program?

That’s the question du jour on the plates of many Boston parents, philanthropists, nutritionists, and administrators. For the first time in many years, Boston Public Schools seems poised to transform the meals the city’s 56,000 students consume during the school year. On paper, the cornerstone of this turnaround might appear to be Revolution Foods, the health-centric, California-based B Corp to which the schools department awarded a three-year, $38 million contract earlier this month to prepare and deliver student meals to the more than 80 schools without their own kitchen.

For years, Boston Public Schools’ food service department was plagued with problems. The department used to cook meals for the district’s children from a central kitchen, but that facility was closed in 2005 after falling into disrepair—forcing the city to turn to an outside vendor to deliver meals to Boston’s schools. In March 2011, an investigation by a city councilor revealed freezers full of products that had long passed their expiration dates but were still finding their way onto students’ trays. To make matters worse, the department was in the financial red, and employees described a “hostile work environment,” as detailed in a scathing 2014 external review of the department. Frozen meals, shipped in from out of state, often ended up in the trash because kids didn’t like what they were being served.

The district, to its credit, took steps to correct course. It appointed an advisory group of parents to work on improving school food, created a multiyear strategic plan to identify strengths and areas for improvement, and last year hired Laura Benavidez as the executive director of the Food and Nutrition Services Department at Boston Public Schools. (She was previously a co-interim food service director in the Los Angeles Unified School District.) Benavidez is widely hailed as a calculating visionary, whose office door is always open and who never turns away a parent with a concern or suggestion.

Still, the news of the vendor shakeup surprised many Boston parents and school food advocates who believed the schools department enjoyed a particularly cozy relationship with its former vendor, Whitson’s Culinary Group, which had shipped frozen school meals from a kitchen in New York since 2011. Revolution Foods serves 2 million meals a week in 22 districts across the country, including San Francisco, Austin, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., and is known for its nutritious, never-frozen meals, full of fresh fruit and vegetables.

“What was most attractive about Revolution Foods [is] that it’s a company founded by two mothers who saw what their kids were eating in schools,” says Dr. Stephanie Shapiro Berkson, a parent of children in Boston Public Schools who holds a PhD in public health. “Just the ethical principles and values of the company alone make it a very welcome change. After six years of kids hating the food, it needed a change.”

Long-term, though, Boston may have no need for an outside vendor at all. School officials are studying the feasibility of bringing much of the meal production back in-house, essentially eliminating the need for an outside, for-profit vendor. Benavidez signaled in an interview with CityLab that the district is studying whether it’s less costly to scratch-cook more of the food Boston’s students eat, while at the same time increasing the nutritional content and choices students have in the cafeteria.

But building kitchens at the 85 “satellite schools” that lack them is expensive, as would be re-building a central commissary somewhere in the city. Delving into the world of cooking school food from scratch means retraining cafeteria workers who’ve become accustomed to warming frozen meals or, at best, assembling packaged foods on a tray. And the city’s infamous traffic and unpredictable winters complicate the return to a centrally located kitchen tasked with producing meals for 125 schools that are spread out across two sides of a major harbor.

But what if there could be central kitchens located in each neighborhood, where food is prepared daily for those schools that lack kitchens?

The schools department is already piloting such a program in the East Boston neighborhood. There, meals are made from scratch, with fresh ingredients, in a newly renovated kitchen at East Boston High School paid for by the Shah Family Foundation. In addition to feeding students at the high school, fresh meals are delivered to three neighborhood elementary schools that lack full-service kitchens. This “hub and spoke” distribution model worked so well this past spring that the schools department agreed to extend the pilot through next fall, expanding its frequency from one day a week to all five beginning in September.

“Can we get fresh food, no plastic wrap, as nutritious as possible, with as little waste as possible, into the mouths of kids, cooked by people in Boston—for what the [United States Department of Agriculture] subsidy allows?” asks foundation president Jill Shah. (That per-kid subsidy from the USDA is about $4 per meal, and BPS students have received free breakfast and lunch since 2013.) “It’s kind of like we’re rebuilding a business.”

As it continues to implement the East Boston pilot program, the Shah Family Foundation is passing along data to the schools department on benchmarks like participation, food procurement and waste, and training needs for cafeteria workers. Program leaders have turned to local chefs for advice on procuring inexpensive ingredients in bulk. The $65,000 kitchen at East Boston High School, retrofitted with combination ovens and steamers, was modeled after the small but productive kitchens at healthy quick-service restaurants like Sweetgreen or Dig Inn.

By bringing on Revolution Foods to take over food production at the district’s satellite schools, the schools department is sending its strongest message to date that it is hearing parent concerns about school food and is actively exploring changes, according to Scott Richardson, a national school food expert with the Boston-based school food consulting firm Northbound Ventures. While Richardson believes the best solution long-term is food prepared in Boston, in the short-term he says he’ll be looking to the school district and parents to hold the new vendor accountable to its marketing promises around quality and freshness.

“The devil will be in the details, in the execution,” says Richardson, who co-authored a 2014 Harvard study showing that kids are eating more fruits and vegetables under more stringent school lunch nutrition guidelines. “And [in] whether or not the kids eat the food.”

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