As the new school year gets underway, more children will be noshing on tasty fish cakes and pesto chickpeas, some of the most popular dishes of a fast-growing company that provides food services to private and charter schools in New York City.
Harlem-based Red Rabbit, which delivers nutritious meals made from scratch and from mostly local ingredients, is opening a second kitchen, in Brownsville, Brooklyn, this month, and vetting locations for a third facility, in the Bronx. The expansion in Brooklyn alone will result in 45 new schools using the service, up from 70 last year, and a doubling of the staff, to 100, by the end of the year.
Fueled by a $750,000 loan, as well as a keen national focus on improving the quality of food served in schools across the country—it is First Lady Michelle Obama‘s signature cause—Red Rabbit is poised to make the most significant leap in its seven-year history.
“We started in 2005, before these issues were on the forefront of everyone’s mind,” said Rhys Powell (pictured above), founder and president of Red Rabbit, which generated $2 million in revenue last year. Now most public officials have a proposal or are considering how to address the nation’s growing obesity crisis, focusing squarely on schools as ground zero of the problem and solution.
Red Rabbit’s mission is to provide healthy cuisine and to introduce children to new foods, such as cauliflower, while also educating them about nutrition. Its Harlem kitchen does not have a fryer, for example, which means it can’t prepare the fried, greasy foods that most kids consume in and out of school. Red Rabbit’s educational component includes cooking labs and even a gardening program for schools that have land for growing crops.
It was Red Rabbit’s potential to create new jobs, however, that caught the attention of the New York City Investment Fund, which is lending the business $750,000.
“We are excited about the food sector in the city and are making investments in some urban farming projects and redeveloping industrial spaces for food manufacturing companies,” said Lili Lynton, senior vice president of the Investment Fund. The Investment Fund helped Red Rabbit secure the Brownsville space, a former retail store that has been transformed into an industrial kitchen.
There is no shortage of companies or organizations aimed at improving school food. Wellness in the Schools, for one, is a 7-year-old nonprofit that uses professional chefs to help design menus and cook food in about 30 public schools in the city.
Red Rabbit has focused instead on private and charter schools, in large part because it has been difficult to penetrate the city’s vast public-school system, according to Mr. Rhys. “We’ve been quite stumped,” he said.
In 2008, he began targeting charter schools and offering meals that are equal to or are below the federal reimbursement benefit of $2.90 per lunch—compared with private-school lunches, which cost about $6.
Charter school Coney Island Prep, which had been using the Department of Education’s School Food program, just switched to Red Rabbit.
“Last year, our kids ate pizza and chicken fingers,” said Dan Shapiro, the school’s director of finance. “Now they are eating whole-wheat pasta primavera and brown rice with broccoli.”