Monday, October 5, 2009

Paving the Way to Privatization of the School Lunch Program

This is the first guest post on The Perimeter Primate by Caroline Grannan . Grannan was an editor at the San Jose Mercury News for 12 years. Currently she contributes to a number of Internet sites dealing with education and schools. She is a San Francisco public school parent, advocate, and volunteer and has followed education politics locally and nationwide.-- P.P.

On Revolution Foods

I’m a veteran of several years on the frontlines of the battle to improve school food. So of course I read the press coverage, including a sudden explosion of glowing news reports on a company called Revolution Foods -- a progressive-sounding effort to privatize school meals.

Almost all of that coverage is by confused reporters who don’t understand the economics of funding school meals and who buy Revolution’s misleading claim that its meals cost only a little more than the federal funding for school meals. Here’s a quote from a Sept. 30 Washington Post story about Revolution: “The price, between $2.90 and $3 per lunch, is not much higher than the current $2.68 the government pays.” The assumption is that the school district or the student has to come up with a mere 22 to 32 cents. But that’s misleading, because actually, the $2.68 government reimbursement also has to cover labor and other costs of running a school cafeteria.

A Sept. 30 article by Molly Watson, “The Business of School Lunch,” published in Edible San Francisco (“The Bay Area’s smartest food magazine”), did a better job. Watson writes about various entrepreneurs trying to find ways to make a successful business of providing quality school lunches. She gets the cost issue, and also points out that Revolution’s food is no longer as purist as its image would have it, as the company tries to cut costs:

“While Revolution Foods used to claim to use local and organic foods ‘whenever possible,’ the company has shifted its language to focus on ‘fresh’ and ‘healthy.’ … it was much more manageable to source locally when the company was smaller. The company must buy a lot of its vegetables partially processed— potatoes washed and cut, lettuce washed and shredded for salads, carrots cut on the bias and ready to cook…”

Of course Revolution is trying to cut costs to make itself affordable to school districts – currently its clientele is limited to charter schools, with their extra funding from private donors; private schools; and a few school districts that can charge students higher prices for lunch.

But the other piece of the story is that Revolution is a private-sector enterprise trying to make a profit. Those who oppose private for-profit companies running public schools should also have a big problem with Revolution’s business plan. After all, if a school cafeteria operation can manage to not just break even but also turn a profit, that extra money should go into improving the food for the students – not into profits for shareholders and investors.

Some of Revolution’s other ties should make critics of school privatization sit up and take notice. The charter-promoting New Schools Venture Fund also includes Revolution in its portfolio, and Joanne Weiss, head of the Obama administration’s charter-pushing Race to the Top initiative, sits on Revolution’s board.*

The similarities and overlaps between Revolution Foods and the charter school world are starting to become apparent – the capital, the need to be profitable, the BS PR, the blaming of public schools for things beyond their control, the "it's all sooo easy and those stoopid public schools just don't have the will" attitude, even the blaming of the unions (Revolution meals depend on cutting labor costs by requiring teachers to serve lunch, or relying on volunteers).

The for-profit aspect is an issue that really needs more attention, though. It’s not morally justifiable to try and make a profit from feeding schoolchildren, when any extra money should go into feeding them better-quality food. – Caroline Grannan

*Addendum from the Perimeter Primate.

Just prior to her placement at the Department of Education, Joanne Weiss’ work bio read like this:

Joanne Weiss is also “Partner and COO at NewSchools Venture Fund, where she focuses on investment strategy and management assistance to a variety of the firm's portfolio ventures, and oversees the organization's operations. As part of this work, she serves on the boards of Aspire Public Schools, Green Dot Public Schools, Leadership Public Schools, New Leaders for New Schools, Revolution Foods, Rocketship Education and Teachscape.”

Many of these organizations where Weiss has been heavily involved for years have received millions of dollars from Eli Broad. See the chart below.

Jonathan Klein, a member of the Advisory Board, has ties to Eli Broad. Klein is a member of the founding team which developed the concept and business model for Revolution Foods. His online bio fails to mention that he is also a member of the Broad Residency Class of 2006-2008.

Contributions from Eli Broad to the following organizations.

Aspire Pubic Schools¹

Green Dot Pubic Schools ²

New Leaders for New Schools ³

NewSchools Venture Fund


















































¹ Aspire Pubic Schools: The charter management organization co-founded by Don Shalvey and Reed Hastings, the founder and CEO of Netflix. Just before starting this project, they co-authored the California Charter School Initiative which was signed into law in 1998, thus lifting the cap on charter schools in California.

² Green Dot Pubic Schools: The charter management organization which was launched by Steve Barr with support of Reed Hastings. Hastings also co-founded EdVoice with John Doerr (investment banker) and is connected to Eli Broad and the recently deceased Don Fisher (The Gap, KIPP’s big supporter). Broad and Fisher were co-chairs on the EdVoice board.

³ New Leaders for New Schools: The principal training program created by the pro-charter/pavers for school privatization faction. It has developed an alternative curriculum and pays its participants a salary while they are being trained, thus they are able to entice a big block of wannabe-principals. The academic programs at the local universities have a hard time competing with this temptation. NLFNS also makes arrangements for school districts to assign their participants to administrative positions at schools, especially when they have Broad-trained/influenced people working in district central offices who favor them. NLFNS also trains its participants for administrative positions in charter schools.

NewSchools Venture Fund: The “New Schools Fund” dba (does business as) the “NewSchools Venture Fund.” The NSVF is a major hub where millions of dollars from philanthropists are accumulated and then distributed to charter management organizations and “education entrepreneurs,” both nonprofit and for-profit. Reed Hastings helped to start the NSVF. In 2003 it also received $22 million from the Gates Foundation to “create systems of charter schools through nonprofit charter management organizations.”

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