It was while volunteering in Nairobi, Kenya, that Kristin Groos Richmond, Co-Founder and CEO of Revolution Foods and a 2019 YPO Global Impact honoree, first witnessed the advantage well-nourished people, especially the young, have over those who are ill-fed.
The realization stayed with her past a stint on Wall Street and into business school, where it sparked a notion: Could providing good nutrition to school children be a worthy, yet profitable, business?
Her first day at the University of California Berkeley, Richmond met her like-minded business partner, Kirsten Saenz Tobey, “and we spent really our entire MBA designing what would become the business plan for Revolution Foods.”
As she analyzed the field, she realized they had discovered a nearly untapped USD20 billion market.
According to the No Kid Hungry campaign launched by the nonprofit Share Our Strength, more than 12 million children in the United States live in homes that are food insecure, meaning they cannot afford or do not have access to enough food to keep all family members nourished.
Richmond says she knew right away this was a high-impact opportunity to build a large, successful, scalable business that could make a big difference to communities. “And so, we went after it.”
Those were busy times.
“We were graduating, starting a business and starting families all at the same time,” she says.
Richmond signed the term sheet with their first investor at the hospital in labor with her first child.
“So? When it rains it pours,” she says. “But I didn’t want to wait one minute to start the company because I knew how important and time sensitive the opportunity was.”
Thirteen years later, their company designs, produces and distributes 2 million healthy meals per week to more than 400 cities and towns across the U.S.
Revolutionizing the lunch plate
From the first test meals to today, Revolution Food’s mission has remained the same: providing healthy, affordable, delicious food to all children. It serves breakfast, lunch and supper in schools, after school and summer programs, focusing on community wellness in at-risk neighborhoods with large urban school systems.
In those communities, meal programs such as Revolution Foods’ often are the only reliable source of meals a child has each day, according to No Kid Hungry.
Recent studies conducted by the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research link higher-quality meals with improved academic performance.
“So, the imperative to having access to great food is not a nice to have, it’s a critical to have,” Richmond says.
Nearly all of the students Revolution Foods serves qualify for free or reduced lunches, a federally funded program that requires student meals be affordable for low-incomed families. Districts are reimbursed a small amount — around USD3 per meal — meaning Revolution Foods has to keep all of its costs below that mark.
When the company launched, cheap rarely meant healthy.
Reinventing the chain
From the start, Revolution Foods’ focus was on serving clean food, a food-industry term for all-natural products having no artificial ingredients.
Because clean ingredients were not as plentiful in the U.S. as they are today, they commanded a higher price than those with artificial ingredients.
Nor were such products available from established school food suppliers. Revolution Foods had to grow its own supply chain.
“It’s like almost the first decade of the company was about getting that supply chain,” Richmond says. “Making sure we could get to all kids — because that is such a big part of our mission — means it has to be affordable. So, we spent a lot of time working on that supply chain to ensure both health and affordability.”
It also has to taste good
They also spent a lot of time making healthy food appealing.
When Revolution Foods launched, the industry standard for school lunches “was a little bit of a race to the bottom with processed foods,” Richmond says.
The assumption was “Oh, kids love junk food.” Yet when they approached the students and families, Richmond says, “the response was very different: “It was, ‘we would love to have high-quality foods, but it has to taste good! It has to look good. It has to smell good.”
For kids, looking, smelling and tasting good means – at least at first — that the food looks normal to them. So, Revolution Foods customizes its meals to appeal to the culturally diverse communities across the US.
“Whether it’s the Haitian community or the Latin community — it varies across the country,” she says, “we’re designing meals that are not only healthy but, equally as important, they’re delicious and they’re relevant for the communities we serve.”
Meals are cooked, assembled, chilled and distributed from eight culinary centers around the US. Produce, milk and fruit primarily come from local sources, and clean label staple items are sourced from national suppliers.
“We are constantly substituting, innovating and updating that variety based on the desires of the students and communities we’re serving,” Richmond says.
A well-nourished community
While Revolution Foods started with school lunches, it evolved to encompass entire communities. If children are well-fed, they stay healthier and do better in school, so parents miss less work caring for sick children. Parents skip fewer meals, too.
And Revolution Foods has created more than 1,500 jobs.
Revolution Foods was named by Harvard Inner City as the second fastest growing inner-city job creator in the United States.
“We create good jobs and then, more importantly, great careers for people,” Richmond says. “Most of those people are parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles of the students we serve.”
It is not just the students who are well-nourished, it is the entire community.
“Looking at that whole circle of community wellness and impact is one of the things I’m most proud of,” she says.
Not so lonely at the top
“There has not been a fresh food manufacturing company like ours in citywide wellness,” Richmond says. “Growing something from zero to, in our case, about USD150 million in revenues is really like building four distinct companies in terms of stages.”
Each time the company hit a new stage, she says, they re-evaluated. Did they have the right systems? The right talent?
Were they developing people well enough?
Her YPO network helped shorten the learning curve.
“I never could have imagined when I joined YPO, how much of an impact it would have,” she says. “The chance to have sort of the quiet confidential reflective space where you’re able to as a leader share your challenges and learn from people who have been through the trends … has been transformative for me.”