A tale of two lunches

By Rebecca Jones

It was the best of meals; it was the worst of meals.

It was cheese tortellini topped with steamed zucchini, a whole wheat roll, organic soy milk and whole fruit; it was fried chicken nuggets, mashed potatoes and gravy, a pre-packaged blueberry muffin, chocolate milk and a fruit cup.

It was $3.10 per child; it was $1.40 per child.

This is a tale of two lunch periods, both in the same school cafeteria in Denver’s Stapleton neighborhood. From 11 a.m. to noon, the cafeteria houses children from The Odyssey School, a charter school serving grades K-8. From noon to 1 p.m., it houses children from Westerly Creek Elementary School, a DPS school that currently serves children from ECE through third grade.

The two schools occupy opposite ends of the same building, and share the cafeteria. But the lunch menus at the two schools could not be more different.

At Odyssey, where roughly a third of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, the meals are catered by Revolution Foods, a company launched in the San Francisco Bay area in 2006 and that today serves lunches at more than 100 schools in California, Colorado and the mid-Atlantic area around Washington D.C. Every meal is homemade and includes fresh fruit and vegetables, a healthy carbohydrate and a lean protein. Revolution uses locally-grown organic produce whenever possible, the milk is hormone-free, and the foods are never fried or microwaved. The meals are also free of artificial preservatives and sweeteners.

At Westerly, where very few of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, the children eat standard DPS cafeteria fare, which meets basic dietary guidelines, including no more than 30 percent of calories coming from fat and less than 10 percent coming from saturated fat. At DPS, lunches served to elementary students last week averaged 707 calories – slightly higher than the target of 634 calories – and averaged 21 percent fat, according to the district’s Food and Nutrition Services Web site.

“They make an effort. Some days are better than others,” says Westerly kindergarten teacher Ann Christensen, of the district’s effort to provide students with better-quality, more healthful meals than in the past. “We haven’t had any complaints from parents about the food. Most of us grew up eating in school cafeterias, so it’s not like we expect a lot of ambience.”

Christensen has a unique perspective because while she eats with her Westerly kindergarteners, her son eats with his classmates – at Odyssey. And rather than pay for the more expensive Revolution lunches, she packs her son’s lunch at home, just as she’s done since he first started to school.

“It’s nice to have edamame for lunch, but they can live without it,” Christensen says. “Parents just want their children to have a good lunch. I encourage my kindergarteners parents to pack their lunches at home because kids do better with foods they’re familiar with.”

In contrast, Odyssey parent Kim Neal is ecstatic about the lunches that her son Colton, a second-grader, eats every day.

“I like the portions. I like the quality. This is just better food than what the school offered before. He wouldn’t eat the lunches that I packed for him, and he WILL eat this,” she says.

Odyssey’s switch to catered lunches grew, in part, out of a school project last year. Seventh- and eighth-graders studying nutrition investigated a number of options for how school lunches could be improved. Among the companies they investigated was Revolution Foods.

“They wrote letters to me and to our board, explaining how Revolution compared to other companies,” says school Principal Marcia Fulton. “The kids were thinking. Yes, the food is more expensive. But we asked our parents if they’d be willing to pay more to get this quality of lunch, and they said yes.”

At the same time, the Donnell Kay Foundation and the Colorado League of Charter Schools (funders of EdNews) began brokering conversations last fall between Revolution Foods, local charter school, health advocates, education officials and food service providers to put together a pilot program in Colorado to allow charter schools to contract with the company to provide school lunches.

Bureaucratic roadblocks involving rules about federal reimbursement for students who qualified for free or reduced price lunches threatened to derail the plan, but state policies were changed last spring to permit the program to move forward. Read this EdNews story for background on the issue.

This fall, Revolution is providing lunches at 18 Colorado charter schools. Most of them joined together to form the Flagstaff School Food Authority, which functions to process reimbursement claims. Flagstaff Academy, a charter school in Longmont, does most of the actual processing of paperwork, with the support of the Colorado League of Charter Schools.

“We are ecstatic to be here,” says Nick Saccaro, vice president and general manager for Revolution Foods. “We’ve developed phenomenal partnerships, and we couldn’t be happier.” He predicts the number of schools that contract with Revolution will hugely expand as parents begin to see what sorts of meals are turning up on their children’s lunch tables.

Unlike a traditional school cafeteria, which serves as many children as want to eat on any given day, Revolution provides only the number of meals each day that are ordered in advance. Parents choose from among a choice of two hot entrees or a salad each day. All meals include whole fruit and whole wheat rolls. A week’s worth of meals are usually ordered in advance.

“There’s no last-minute ‘Can I get a lunch today?’” says Fulton. “There’s less spontaneity. Parents have to be trained to be thinking a week in advance to put in those orders.”

Students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches still eat for free or at a reduced price at Odyssey, even though the meals cost substantially more than regular school lunches. A little over a week into the new school year, Fulton isn’t sure just how it will all balance out, and history is no guide. But she trusts it will.

She says that last year, many of the students simply wouldn’t eat the food being served in the cafeteria, even if they did qualify for free lunch. It seems to her that more economically disadvantaged students are taking advantage of the Revolution lunches.

“Those who can’t afford to pay full price every day, but don’t qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, we encourage them to buy fewer lunches and supplement those they buy with foods from home,” Fulton says. “The fact is, this is just much, much healthier than most of what they’d bring from home.”

The proof, if would seem, is in the pudding. Westerly principal Jill Corcoran acknowledges that most of her students bring their own lunches. Going through the school lunch line takes a long time and lunch periods are short.

In contrast, most Odyssey students eat hot meals ordered through Revolution Foods.

“I like this better than bringing from home,” says 10-year-old Seamus as he tucks into his tortellini. “After seeing what it looks like, my dad said I could order lunch from school. I didn’t eat cafeteria food last year, and now I do. This is real, actual food.”

“The other lunch was so bad, I wouldn’t eat it,” said Tom, a 10-year-old Odyssey student. “But this is almost a 10 out of a 10.”

A group of fifth-graders all agreed that so far, only the chicken hot dogs have failed to meet their taste tests. Given that reaction, it’s unlikely chicken hot dogs will make a return to the menu.

“The other powerful piece is the feedback loop,” Fulton says. “They’re here every day talking to kids, asking them ‘Do you like this?’ Revolution is interested in making sure kids like what they eat. They’ll make recipes from the kids’ input. They want kids to love what they eat and to provide a healthy experience for them.”

Colorado Schools served by Revolution Foods:

Lotus School for Excellence, Aurora,
West Denver Prep
Flagstaff Academy, Longmont
The Odyssey School
Mental Health Center of Denver,
Westgate Community School, Northglenn
Denver School of Science and Technology
Horizons k-8 School, Boulder
Denver International School
Colorado High School Charter, Denver
AXL Academy, Aurora
Jefferson Academy Secondary, Broomfield
Lincoln Academy, Arvada
Knowledge Quest Academy, Milliken
Global Village Academy, Aurora
Littleton Academy
American Academy, Castle Pines
Mackintosh Academy, Littleton

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”