Revolution Foods feeds the ed-reform hype

What could be more admirable than an attempt to improve school meals? And making a profit by doing that can only be beneficial to everyone, right?

That’s what San Francisco Bay Area-based Revolution Foods has convinced a lot of people, anyway. The private-sector enterprise has won acclaim for supposedly bringing better, healthier, fresher school meals to school cafeterias.

Only trouble is, Revolution Foods claims that it can do that for the amount public schools receive from the government for school meals are untrue – which has caused some problems with its clients.

Revolution Foods is something like a parallel wing of the “education reform” movement — the same movement that promotes privatization, pushes for ever more high-stakes standardized testing, and disparages and deprofessionalizes teaching and teachers in the name of “accountability.” Revolution is closely linked to many of the same forces that support those “education reform” policies, and it deploys some of the same problematic tactics. This post on the Perimeter Primate blog gives details. Revolution board members come from such reform stalwarts as EdisonLearning, New Schools Venture Fund and Teach for America (though “reformer”/U.S. Department of Education insider Joanne Weiss is no longer on the Revolution board).

As I wrote on Perimeter Primate in 2009:

“The similarities and overlaps between Revolution Foods and the charter school world are starting to become apparent – the capital, the need to be profitable, the BS PR, the blaming of public schools for things beyond their control, the ‘it’s all sooo easy and those stoopid public schools just don’t have the will’ attitude, even the blaming of the unions (Revolution meals depend on cutting labor costs by requiring teachers to serve lunch, or relying on volunteers).”

But does all that matter if Revolution Foods is feeding kids better? Well, if public schools’ food operations had more money – if they had as much as Revolution spends — they could feed kids a whole lot better too. The eternal problem is that the money comes out of classroom needs. And Revolution’s food may win acclaim in the press, but students don’t always agree.

Among clients that have run into problems with Revolution Foods’ higher costs is the Santa Cruz, Calif., school district, which contracted with the company for a short time in 2009 and was blindsided by the high costs. The district had expected the Revolution meals to attract more students to eat in the cafeteria, which would have increased revenues, but the cuisine wasn’t a hit with students, the Santa Cruz Sentinel reported.

The K-8 school district in Mill Valley, Calif., also severed its contract with Revolution because of dissatisfaction with both cost and quality. That fact jumped out at me because I grew up in Mill Valley and attended those schools – and Mill Valley is also the residence of one of Revolution Foods’ high-profile founders, Kristin Richmond.

Revolution Foods’ inaccurate claim that its meals don’t cost more than the government subsidy echoes the ed-reform hype. It denies the inadequacy of government funding and sends the message that public schools should be able to manage better without getting more money, encouraging continued underfunding of our kids’ educational and nutritional needs.

I can’t possibly explain this better than my friend and longtime parent volunteer school food advocate Dana Woldow – outraged by an uncomprehending reporter’s puff piece – did on San Francisco’s BeyondChron blog:

Revolution Foods is the company whose PR claims that they can provide an organic scratch cooked school lunch for “just” the cost of a government free lunch reimbursement, or as one recent clueless reporter gushed, ‘it doesn’t cost schools more to choose these meals’,” Dana wrote.

She continued: “What utter crap! The truth is, Revolution charges about $3 per lunch on their cheapest plan, which, as the clueless reporter indicated, includes the cost of the food, with labor and transportation to get the food to the school. Once the food enters the cafeteria, however, Revolution’s job is over; they can pocket their $3 per meal and leave.

But for the school, the job has just begun… [Dana enumerates the many costs of operating a cafeteria, starting with labor.]

“Who pays those costs? Why, the schools of course, because the entire $2.72 government reimbursement for a free lunch already went into the pocket of Revolution Foods just to get the meal in the back door of the cafeteria.

“ ‘It doesn’t cost schools more to choose these meals?’ Really? Because unless the caf worker is working for free, and unless the utilities are free, and the garbage collection is free, and the labor to process meal applications and plow through all the required forms to get the money from the government is all free, then it sure sounds like it costs schools more.”

Meanwhile, a July 2011 interview with Revolution’s founders on makes it clear that the school food operation is not financially viable on its own. The founders are involved in a side business selling organic baby and toddler cuisine to support the company.

“… [W]e can’t raise prices just to make sure that we have a comfortable margin, there’s really a ceiling on the price that we can charge to schools,” co-founder Kirsten Tobey said in the interview. “In developing this business model, we realized that one of the things we could do is to have other business lines that supported the school meal program. One of the things we looked at was this idea of selling a retail product—essentially a higher margin product line—and we ended up partnering with another company called the Nest Collective to create that product line.”

Revolution has raised so many millions of dollars in venture capital that it’s hard to keep up with the reports. Sources of funding include New Schools Venture Fund, which exists to fund “education reform” and school privatization efforts.

Revolution also has a complex partnership with Whole Foods Markets, according to Oakland Magazine:

“Whole Foods supplies volumes of healthy food to Rev Foods and connects the company to other suppliers for the ingredients that go into each school lunch. And 3 percent of revenues from the Rev Foods brand sold at Whole Foods goes to keeping costs down for the school lunch side of the business.”

It may or may not be coincidence that a business working hand-in-hand with school privatization forces has also teamed up with a retailer whose CEO jarred his clientele in 2009 with his right-wing position opposing President Obama’s health-care overhaul.

Revolution Foods and the currently vogueish education reform movement share a key trait: the need – and too often the ability – to persuade the public to believe that they can work miracles.

Dana Woldow responds to the Revolution promotional claims.

“The only way we can really ‘fix’ school food once and for all is for the Federal government to increase the amount of money it provides to cover the cost of school meals. All of our children deserve fresh healthy locally grown food, to nourish their bodies and their minds, but magical thinking won’t make it happen.”

Posted on by CarolineSF Posted in Uncategorized