Recipe for the Future

How Revolution Foods is changing what our children eat

The video screens in the darkened room. Over images of school and play, meals prepared and meals eaten, a diversity of young voices explain: “i eat. I study. I play. I create and i dream. Give me a mountain to climb. Give me the impossible. Give me a world to change, and i’ll do it.”

“Give me real food. Give me something good—really good. With an extra portion of yum and a side of respect.”

Revolution Foods seeks to nourish this basic need. The company launched in 2006 with the explicit goal of transforming how and what our kids eat.

On November 19, the Graduate School of Management hosted company co-founder and Chief Impact Officer Kirsten Saenz Tobey to speak on “Revolution Foods and the Women Building the Future.” The Dean’s Distinguished Speaker event was co-sponsored by the UC Davis Child Family Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and the UC Davis World Food Center.

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Revolution Foods was named by Fast Company as one of the world’s 50 most innovative companies in 2015. Tobey and co-founder Kristin Groos Richmond met nine years earlier as graduate students at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and immediately recognized each other as kindred spirits.

“We shared set of common values,” Tobey told her near-capacity audience of students and alumni, business partners and entrepreneurs—innovators all. “And these values became the underpinning for everything we do at Revolution Foods.”

The company was founded on the premise that “healthy, nutritious foods and healthy eating habits are valuable levers for setting kids up for success in life,” said Tobey. “All kids deserve healthy foods, no matter where they live, where they are born, their socioeconomic status or the color of their skin.”

But although the ideal was immediately clear, the path to realize it—both business model and funding—remained murky.

“We spent quite a bit of time looking at what was going on in the space of kids and health and nutrition, and debating the pros and cons of nonprofit and for-profit models,” Tobey said.

They found considerable nonprofit support in schools, but little scalability. A foundation might fund a beautiful vegetable garden in one school district, “but that’s not going to impact the kids in the urban district in the next town,” Tobey explained. Further, many philanthropists were unwilling to take a risk on their concept, which remains without counterparts even today.

“We talked a lot with kids,” Tobey said. “We heard from school leaders who said, We don’t want to manage a restaurant; we are here to educate. We talked to food service directors and learned that the system is not set up for them to make the best food. We realized that we had to actually make the food and deliver it to the schools.”

“[Revolution Foods] sits at the intersection of three hot issues—education reform, child nutrition and sustainable and local agriculture.”

A Platform for Innovation

That determined, Tobey and Groos Richmond founded Revolution Foods as a for-profit, mission-driven business. They found investors and angel investors in the mission-driven venture capital world “who were ready to take a leap and take a risk and invest in our model,” said Tobey.

They started building their “platform for innovation” in a retrofitted old McDonald’s building in Alameda, Calif. At the start of 2006, the company supplied 500 meals a day to just a few schools in Oakland. By end of that year, Revolution was working with 10 schools and supplying 10,000 meals a day. “We got up every day at 3 a.m.,” Tobey says.

The meals have little in common with “traditional” school lunches, with their overdependence on salt, sugar and fat, and their focus on cost over taste and nutrition.

Revolution Foods delivers locally produced meals that are designed and taste tested by children. The company emphasizes quality, whole foods and gives familiar favorites a new spin while minimizing unhealthy and artificial ingredients. As its menu has traveled from its base in the Bay Area to first Washington, D.C., and now across the country, it has grown to offer regional specialties.

Today Revolution Foods provides 300,000 “real food” meals—lunches, as well as breakfasts, after-school snacks and dinners—each day to children in 30 U.S. cities, at prices that ensure the meals are affordable for schools and students reimbursable under the federal Free and Reduced Lunch program. Most of Revolution Foods’ customers are public schools; many are in low-income communities.

“Give me real food. Give me something good—really good. With an extra portion of yum and a side of respect.”

These more than 1.5 million healthy meals a week—plus the proceeds from a recently launched retail line carried in 4,000 Safeways, Whole Foods Markets and other stores—brings in over $100 million in annual revenue.

To contain costs, Revolution requires orders be placed a week ahead. Meals are cooked in one of six centralized kitchens and then promptly delivered to be served by school employees. The company’s expansion into retail offerings further strengthened its bargaining power with suppliers.

Revolution Foods approach to financing is crucial to its success. “Investors don’t just bring money,” explains Tobey. “They bring a set of values themselves. We’ve now raised $130 million dollars in several rounds of financing. We’ve brought in investors who believe in the mission, who believe in our business model and who can bring some expertise to the table.”

All employees become stockholders after a year. “This is critical in mission-driven companies,” Tobey explains. “Anyone who interacts with us is important to our success.”

Throughout her talk, Tobey stressed how the core values—determined early and returned to often—drive the company, serving as both touchstone and cornerstone. “When there are differing needs,” she said, “it is our values that help us make decisions and move forward.”

“Investors don’t just bring money… They bring a set of values themselves….We’ve brought in investors who believe in the mission, who believe in our business model and who can bring some expertise to the table.”

Nourishing the Future

Both business and social leaders have recognized Revolution Foods’ impact on nourishing the nation’s future. The Schwab Foundation and World Economic Forum named Tobey and Groos Richmond as Social Entrepreneurs of the Year for 2015. They were listed among Fortune’s 40 under 40 for 2013, and co-named Entrepreneur of the Year by NewSchools Venture Fund in 2010.

Time magazine counted them among the top “11 Education Activists for 2011,” noting that Revolution Foods “sits at the intersection of three hot issues—education reform, child nutrition and sustainable and local agriculture.”

Tobey’s message clearly resonated with her audience. Christine Swanson, a third-year student in the part-time Sacramento MBA program, is a credit analyst at CoBank, a $100 billion agricultural enterprise.

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“The talk first piqued my interest because of my background in agriculture and passion for instilling healthy lifestyles in children from an early age,” she said. “I was inspired by both the founders—who have proven themselves to be formidable female entrepreneurs—and the mission to make real food accessible in channels that are typically underserved.

“The service and message of Revolution Foods is incredibly important given the rise of health issues as a result of obesity, especially in youth. I hope the company’s stewardship leads to revolutionary change in how food is sourced and served. The talk truly inspired me to get involved in the natural foods industry post-MBA.”

About the Author: Marianne Skoczek

Marianne Skoczek is the associate director, marketing and communications at the UC Davis Graduate School of Management and the Child Family Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.