INNOVATE

Meet the Companies Changing the Way Kids Eat School Lunches

A new wave of startups is revolutionizing what ends up on your kids’ plate.

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BY Kevin J. Ryan - 11 Sep 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

When the business advisement startup she worked for folded suddenly in 2013, Bri James found herself jobless. But the Duke Law School graduate wasn't scared away from the startup world. On the contrary: She had startup fever.

"It was an awesome experience," she says. "I thought, 'I should try to do something like this myself'."

James, who loved cooking for family and friends in her spare time, experimented with several different types of food delivery services including meal kits for adults who were dieting and food geared toward the elderly. But she didn't get much traction.

Then, in 2015, her mother retired after a 30-year career as a pediatrician. "We'd always talked about doing something together," James says. Schery Mitchell-James told her daughter she would join her venture, but she had two stipulations: Its product had to be for kids, and it had to be healthy. "That's when it all clicked," James says.

She pivoted the startup, which she'd named Scrumpt, to focus on lunches for schoolkids, and her mother joined as co-founder. Today, the Oakland-based company delivers five fresh, balanced meals per week to people's homes,. Each meal contains a main item, fruit, vegetables, a side and a treat. They're often presented in fun ways--like turkey and cheese on pretzel sliders or mini peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on skewers--that James thinks will make kids more likely to eat them. A meal might also include a berry salad or cucumber slices with dipping sauce. "We want to expose kids to new things," James says, "but also warm them up with ingredients that they're already familiar with."

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After a six-month beta test earlier this year, the startup has begun delivering meals on a subscription basis throughout the Bay Area--just in time for the school year. Five days' worth of lunches costs $36 with weekly delivery included. Each pre-portioned box, which can be refrigerated for five days, requires one minute of prep or less--and that prep is as simple as slapping meat onto bread or sliding tidbits onto skewers. "If you have young kids, it can be hard to juggle everything," James says. "The whole idea was, how can we get kids to eat better and not have it be a huge hassle for parents?"

So far, it looks like the mother-daughter duo are on to something: To start this school year, Scrumpt is delivering about 1,000 meals per week. Based on their early numbers, the company hopes to be delivering 4,000 per week by the end of 2017.

The startup is also putting its good-for-kids mentality into practice with its partnerships. Scrumpt teamed up with Town Kitchen, a local catering company that puts an emphasis on employing low-income youth, for production and delivery. While the partnership helps Scrumpt--which still only has six full-time employees--achieve wider scale, the startup will likely have to look elsewhere to expand beyond the Bay Area. "We definitely hope within the next year to spread to other cities on the West Coast, and other cities nationwide," James says. "We want to change the way kids eat in America."

Rebuilding lunch programs

Scrumpt is the latest startup with that mission statement. Companies like Wise Apple and Nurture Life, both based in Chicago, also deliver cold meals directly to parents in their local areas, as does New York-based TuckrBox. All were founded within the past two years.

James points to Michelle Obama's emphasis on the way kids eat for helping to bring about a new wave of interest in the issue. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 championed by the first lady wasn't without controversy, but it did help bring the conversation about what kids eat at school to the forefront. "She helped create this really strong narrative around revamping school lunches," James says. "That's kind of how our company was born."

Some entrepreneurs in the space also point to Ann Cooper, the former school chef and author who refers to herself as the "Renegade Lunch Lady," as helping to usher in the rebellion against frozen pizzas, hot dogs, and other highly processed foods that often have little to no nutritional value. "We're all standing on her shoulders," says Greg Christian, founder and CEO of Chicago-based Beyond Green, a company that helps schools rebuild their lunch programs.

Greg Christian, founder of Beyond Green, advises cafeteria staff on how to make better meals for kids.

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Christian, who had young children in the city's schools, was the caterer for Chicago's City Hall under mayor Richard Daley. He convinced the politician to let him try to revamp several of the city's school lunch programs to include healthier options with fresher, better ingredients--at the same cost.

That project was a success, and Christian decided to launch his own company. A decade later, Beyond Green has rebuilt lunch programs for clients ranging from a single school in Buffalo to the entire Hawaii Department of Education.

The company charges a fee, usually between $60,000 and $350,000 depending on the size of the project, and then Christian and some staff members spend several months on-site with the client. He'll help them order the right equipment to redesign the kitchen, reshape their menu and train the cafeteria cooks on how to make simple, healthier meals. In many cases, they'll plant a vegetable garden on school grounds.

Perhaps most importantly for cost-conscious school districts, Beyond Green helps the schools address their inefficiencies, which allows them to save costs. Those funds can be used to buy better ingredients. Early on, Christian will measure how much food a cafeteria throws out each week and find ways to correct it--like changing the amount of each ingredient that gets ordered per week, or letting kids choose the food they want instead of having the same items placed on each tray. Some minor changes can go a long way, like replacing the standard gray garbage cans and black liners with clear containers to help make people aware of how much food they're wasting.

At one school, Christian says, the cafeteria was dumping $25,000 worth of milk per year--money that could be used to buy better ingredients.

The savings result in a menu that uses as many local ingredients as possible--the goal is generally 40 percent--and emphasizes freshness, flavor, healthiness and variety. Even if a school continues serving chicken fingers and pizza, they now come from homemade breadcrumbs and dough that's kneaded by hand right in the school kitchen.

But there's one thing you won't find on the menu. "No hot dogs, ever," Christian says.

Parents know best

Sometimes, the best way to earn traction for your school lunch startup is to get parents to rally behind you. That's the strategy that helped Belinda DiGiambattista, co-founder of Queens, N.Y.-based Butter Beans, achieve fast growth.

Having just sent her oldest child to day care in 2008, DiGiambattista wasn't impressed with what he was being served. "It was mac and cheese on Monday, chicken nuggets on Tuesday," she says. "There was really nothing wrong with the food, but it was the same thing all the time."

DiGiambattista, who grew up on a farm in North Carolina, thought the kids deserved better. She developed a blueprint for a food startup that would serve nutritious, balanced meals with more variety to children in school. She invested $50,000 of her own money and brought on a business partner (who is no longer with the company). Together, they entered NYU's New Venture Competition. Their business plan won a $50,000 prize, beating out what is now Pinterest.

In September 2008, the co-founders started reaching out to private school administrators, asking if they'd put them in touch with students' parents to see if they'd be interested in having an outside company provide lunch. A few schools agreed to do so. About 20 students signed up at the start.

"It wasn't exactly a break-even year," DiGiambattista says with a laugh. "But it was a great start." By January 2009, Butter Beans had enough business that it had to bring on a full-time chef and two servers. That spring, one of the clients, an elementary school in Brooklyn, offered the company a contract to cater for all its students the following school year.

Butter Beans is now 100 employees strong, and it pulled in $3.9 million in revenue in 2016. While the customer base has grown--it now has contracts with a dozen schools throughout the five boroughs and New Jersey, along with two corporate clients--the offering has remained largely the same. The company provides two buffet-style hot meal options (one meat-based, one vegetarian) each day, plus soups, vegetables, and a salad bar that includes cold sandwiches. Students can choose items like chicken Marbella, turkey tacos, and sweet potato gnocchi. There are also staples like hamburgers and, yes, mac and cheese--with cauliflower added for more nutrition.

At many of the schools, both students and teachers alike lunch on Butter Beans' fare. To DiGiambattista, that validates an idea that serves as a driving force behind the company.

"Back home, we always grew our own food, and everyone ate the same things," she says. "I learned here after having a child that other people feed their children something different than what they eat, which surprised me. I don't think that needs to be the case."

That said, the goal isn't to force kids to eat things they don't want, which is why the company keeps its offerings wide-ranging and diverse. "Our mission is to meet families and children where they are," she says. "We want everyone, whether they're picky or adventurous, to find something on our menu that they like."

DiGiambattista sees her startup as playing a bigger role. "When our kids eat, they're nurturing their body that has to get them through this life," she says. "We have a long way to go until people really take ownership over what we feed our children, but there are a few people like myself who have decided to do something about it. We are trying."