From Classroom to Kitchen: Revolutionizing the School Lunch | Net Impact

From Classroom to Kitchen: Revolutionizing the School Lunch

Kirsten Tobey, Co-Founder & Chief Innovation Officer, Revolution Foods

Kirsten Tobey took her background in experiential education to an unexpected place: business school. She entered with a notion to change how kids eat, and came out on the other side with a business partner and a full-blown social venture that feeds kids healthy meals in schools across the country.

The teacher learns a valuable lesson

Kirsten came from a family of educators, so teaching seemed like a completely logical path for her to take. Starting out as a garden educator, she focused on giving children a real-world understanding of where their food came from. When she moved into the classroom, she continued to challenge her kids outside of a traditional class setting, bringing her Spanish class into Hispanic neighborhoods to foster real-life cultural exchange.

Yet she noticed herself yearning to be more involved in the bigger picture, particularly around issues of inequality and accessibility. Given her background in gardening and food education, she was particularly aware of how poor food quality at school had an impact on students’ energy and ability to concentrate.

But with years of hands-on teaching under her belt, did she have the right skill set to start a new venture in food education? To make sure, she enrolled in Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. And that’s where Revolution Foods was born.

A cross-disciplinary approach to meeting kids’ needs

Fittingly, the seed for Revolution Foods was planted in the classroom. On the first day of a cross-disciplinary product development class involving the business school, the engineering school, and the art school, Kirsten walked in with a hand-drawn sketch exploring how to get healthier food to kids in an educational way.

As her fellow classmates began outlining their own ideas for innovative products, one of them (Kristin Groos Richmond) held up a school lunch that she’d purchased on the way to class. “We looked at each other across the room, and that was the beginning of a great friendship and business partnership.”

Kids are used to eating what’s in front of them, explains Kirsten, but they don’t always have information that’s accessible to them about what they’re eating. She and her new business partner began exploring ways to change that.

Listening to the right people

One of the first challenges the two encountered was a cacophony of adult voices telling them kids wouldn’t cooperate. “Most people said ‘kids just aren’t going to want to eat healthy food.’ But we believe you should respect your consumer and talk to them directly.”

So Kirsten and Kristin went straight to the source: the kids. “We asked kids, ‘what do you like? Would you be open to trying new things?’ We discovered they were remarkably open, as long as the food tasted good and was presented in an appealing way.” That reality – discovered only by ignoring the naysayers and speaking directly to the population they were trying to serve – guided everything they did from then on.

Like most start-ups, Revolution Foods started small, serving just three schools in Oakland. But today, at just five years old, the organization is serving more than 120,000 meals every day. And while Kirsten’s efforts now are focused on how to scale the enterprise, there’s really no playbook she can turn to for answers. But as a successful social entrepreneur, she's forging her own way forward.

Kirsten's advice

You don’t go through a career change, business school, and a start-up launch without learning a thing or two, and Kirsten is no exception:

  • You don’t need to be an entrepreneur to work at a social venture: Especially as they look to grow, social entrepreneurs can benefit from the insight of professionals with classical business training and education, opening the door for job seekers with that kind of background.
  • Collaborate: For Kirsten, business school was just the start of her collaborative efforts. Whether talking to the kids her company feeds, or the schools it serves, or the local vendors it sources ingredients from, Kirsten is constantly forging relationships and exchanging ideas that open doors.
  • Know thyself, grow thyself: Kirsten tried her hand at teaching – and then admitted it wasn’t the right thing for her. Never losing sight of the passion that motivated her, she also recognized that she had room to develop certain skill sets, so she went back to get her MBA. Get to know yourself, identify where you have potential to grow, and you’ll discover new opportunities (and maybe even a business partner) you never knew existed.