Around the Institute

#MyAspenAction: Improving Access to Healthy Food

December 4, 2014

Above, watch Catto Fellow Kirsten Saenz Tobey explain her Action Pledge.

The Aspen Action Forum is an annual event designed to connect Aspen Global Leadership Network Fellows as well as other action-oriented leaders from Aspen Institute programs and partners and spur them to move “from thought to action.” Each participant at the Aspen Action Forum is asked to make an “Action Pledge” — a public commitment to do something about a societal challenge of their choosing. More than 500 Action Pledges have been made since the inaugural event in 2013. Read below for a Q&A with one of our Fellows about her pledge.

At this year’s Aspen Action Forum, Catto Fellow Kirsten Saenz Tobey pledged to improve access to healthy food and teach healthy eating habits to more than 250,000 students in underserved US communities by 2016. Saenz Tobey has been hard at work transforming kids’ diets for several years. In 2007, she co-founded Revolution Foods with Pahara-Aspen Fellow Kristin Groos-Richmond with a mission to provide healthy, affordable meals to students in low-income US communities.

Today, Revolution Foods serves more than one million freshly prepared meals every week to K-12 schools nationwide and has their own line of healthy foods available in retail stores across the country. Below, Saenz Tobey explains what makes their model work and how transforming students’ diets is improving other aspects of their lives.

Aspen Idea: Delivering healthy meals to students at a low cost is something many people used to argue wasn’t possible. What are the key elements that make your model work?

Kirsten Saenz Tobey: We have focused our model in several ways to address this. First, we are focused on homing in and doing a relatively small number of things very well instead of trying to offer a complex, customized menu to each school we serve. This allows us to concentrate all of our purchasing power on our supply chain. Second, we are incredibly disciplined in our design and production efforts — we have very efficient ordering and production [processes] and minimal waste. 

AI: Tell me a story about one community or school you have worked in.

KST: We had a principal in Oakland write to us telling us the story of two of her students who are sisters from a family that is basically homeless. The principal said that with Revolution Foods now providing these girls with reliable and healthy meals each day, the girls are able to concentrate in school and perform at a higher level.

We also had a school leader in DC share that [student] visits to the nurse’s office had decreased since Revolution Foods began serving the school.

AI: How have you seen healthy eating improve other aspects of students’ lives?

KST: I always love hearing stories of kids who [come] home wanting to learn more about cooking, particularly cooking fresh foods from scratch. I heard about one little girl who went home to say, “Mom, can we buy butternut squash? It’s so yummy!”

AI: Tell me more about your plans to scale up your work to meet your Action Pledge of reaching 250,000 students. How will you achieve this?

KST: We are expanding our reach substantially by opening new facilities in markets we are already working in like Los Angeles. We are also building out a new strategy for expanding our operations to new cities and more remote areas. On the production side, we are preparing to roll out several products intended specifically for use in large school districts. We anticipate these will serve these districts’ needs for breakfast in the classroom, fresh suppers, and more.

Check our playlist of #MyAspenAction Pledge Stories for more like this one.  A new clip will be released each week until the 2015 Aspen Action Forum in July.

Caitlin Colegrove is the network and communications manager for the Aspen Global Leadership Network.