To the delight of Mill Valley's K-8 students, Stefano's Solar-Powered Pizza has returned to the school lunch lineup, giving a needed boost to the food program's service provider.
"We're absolutely delighted to be back doing the school lunch program," said Bob Valentino, owner of Marin's three Stefano's pizza restaurants and Rocco's Pizza & Pasta in Camino Alto Plaza.
Before Mill Valley's lunch program was turned over to Revolution Foods in 2008, Stefano's was one of several local restaurants to provide meals to Mill Valley's K-8 students. It did so for more than 20 years. Due to a state mandate that ended the restaurant program, Revolution Foods became the sole provider of lunches to the Mill Valley School District. Its decision to offer Stefano's Pizza one day a week is in response to requests from school children and parents, according to Revolution Foods co-founder Kirsten Tobey.
"We've heard the community say that having Stefano's is really important," Tobey said. "We're really excited to be building this partnership."
Revolution Foods, started by Bay Area moms Tobey and Kristin Richmond of Mill Valley in 2006, is hoping the third year's a charm in its efforts to provide healthy, fresh and home-style lunches in Mill Valley. It hasn't been easy to satisfy the taste buds of finicky school kids while meeting strict state and federal nutrition requirements.
"It's challenging," said Tobey, who lives on the Peninsula. "The requirements are incredibly complex. But we have a wonderful executive chef who's talking to kids about what they want to eat."
Reviews on the taste and presentation of Revolution Foods' lunches were mixed from the outset. Most of the complaints had to do with presentation. To seal in moisture, for example, kids would find a heap of mash potatoes dumped on top of their lunch entrees.
"We've heard that the meal may taste really good, but if the presentation isn't there, the kids aren't going to like it," said Michele Rollins, the district's assistant superintendent of business services.
The company responded immediately – and often – by asking kids what they wanted and conducting tastings to try out new menu items. Parents and school officials are hopeful the company's eagerness to respond to kids' feedback will help improve meals.
"It's a very proactive company," says Sophia Ferro, PTA executive vice president at Tamalpais Valley Elementary School and a Mill Valley mother of three. "Our school has been more than pleased with how they've responded to our needs, and the kids are eating it more and more."
When Revolution Foods took over Mill Valley's school lunch program, it had big shoes to fill. Previously, school children enjoyed lunches from a rotating collection of Mill Valley restaurants, including Stefano's and Grilly's. Not only did this bode well for local restaurants, it also benefitted school PTAs, which profited from the partnership.
The state eventually cracked down on this practice, saying the restaurant fare did not meet state and federal nutrition requirements. It also prevented proceeds made by the PTAs to be used on anything other than the lunch program. For a time, the PTAs tried to manage the lunch program themselves, but soon gave up against a tidal wave of strict nutritional requirements.
Eventually, the school district turned to Revolution Foods, which first started serving school in Oakland in 2006, with the intention of going above and beyond the normal state and federal guidelines for school lunches. Organic and local foods are used whenever financially possible. Meals contain only fresh fruits and vegetables, and noticeably lack high-fructose corn syrup, artificial trans fats and preservatives. Meats and dairy products are free from hormones and antibiotics. Nothing is flash fried. Chicken fingers, for example, are breaded and baked. The company uses packaging that is recyclable and, when possible, compostable, such as the eucalyptus seals used to contain meals.
In addition to Stefano's, Revolution also approached Grilly's, another member of the original restaurant program, to provide burritos once a week. Owner Jim Revoir eventually declined, saying there was no room for his restaurant to make a profit. Grilly's continues to run its own school lunch program to private schools and day care centers in Mill Valley and Fairfax.
Stefano's Pizza isn't the only change to this year's school lunch menu. The company is adding new salads and sandwiches, such as a Southwest bean salad with grilled chicken, and a turkey sandwich wrap with chipotle dipping sauce. Dual compartment packaging (for those kids who don't like their foods touching), more cut up fruits and vegetables, and more whole grains are also in the mix this year.
The price won't change, however. Revolution will charge $4.75 for grades K-5 and $5 for grades 6-8. All schools will now be able to pre-pay meals on Revolution Foods' online credit card ordering system.
"We consider ourselves to be a very environmentally conscious school, so it really tied in well for us," said Mark McGahan, PTA president of Strawberry Point Elementary School and Mill Valley father of two fussy eaters. "We're hoping that the program will be a bigger hit this year."