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Interview with Rhys W. Powell, Red Rabbit

Rhys W. Powell is the President & Founder of Red Rabbit, a New York City-based company that works with over 150 public, charter and independent schools as well as Head Start programs to serve more than 25,000 meals and snacks every day. This regionally sourced and competitively priced food is delivered from its kitchens in New York City to school children throughout the Greater New York area. It also has an active educational program. Before founding Red Rabbit, Powell studied computer science and engineering at MIT and worked as an equity trader for a privately held financial services firm, Carlin Financial Group.

What motivated you to get involved with food policy and to become a food policy advocate? Was there a specific trigger or inciting incident?

A friend was looking for a healthy food service to provide lunches for his child at school, due to the poor quality of the food being served there. When we couldn’t find such a provider, the idea for Red Rabbit was born. That was 2005, and since then we’ve grown to serve 18,000 meals per day to over 90 public charter and private schools, as well as daycare and afterschool programs throughout the five boroughs. We provide nutritionally balanced, made from scratch meals from our East Harlem kitchen as well as cooking and gardening labs that engage students, parents and/or teachers/school administrators in a fun and memorable way. As we grow and expand our services we are excited to further our mission of changing the food culture in this country, one community at a time.

 Can you describe how Red Rabbit works?

Red Rabbit has two different offerings. One, we make healthy meals and snacks from scratch in our own kitchen and deliver to schools. We work with our schools to create a program that meets their needs. Two, we offer hands-on educational programs that encourage kids to explore, learn and grow healthy relationships with food that will last a lifetime and empower educators and parents to become leaders in the healthy school food movement in their schools and communities.

What do you believe to be the greatest food policy challenges for New York City? And the greatest opportunities?

Right now, the greatest challenges arise from the best intentions. Red Rabbit is united with the newer government guidelines set forth with the passing of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. However, as schools across the country are finding, some of the requirements are proving challenging to execute. For instance, the amount of milk the guidelines require we serve to schools ends up generating vast amounts of waste. This creates the conundrum that asks what is at the real root of this issue – is it a lack  of interest in drinking milk, or is this much milk really necessary? The waste of milk is just one example of how food waste has become an unfortunate byproduct of high expectations for healthier food consumption.  How do we combat that waste?

The greatest opportunities come from the other side of the same coin. With the introduction of more fruits, vegetables and whole grains into school meals, we are given a platform that we have been standing on for nearly 10 years to really drive the conversation about the importance of nutrition and the impact it can have on developing minds. There was some public outcry when these changes began being implemented across the country, and we received a lot of calls from parents and schools who were concerned about the amount of vegetables being sent and whether or not kids would take to them. It really sets the stage for a dialogue about exposure to and trying new foods and how Red Rabbit can help equip schools and parents with information needed to engage in this kind of conversation with their students, getting them enthused about healthy eating. One key thing we have learned over the 9+ years is that, you have to put the fruits and vegetables on the plate every day and eventually the kids will try them and learn to love them.

What is the one food policy change at the local (or state or federal) level that would have the greatest impact on health?

A major hurdle on the federal level is the budgetary restraints federal reimbursements schools face when feeding their students. Schools are only allotted approximately $2.60 per child for lunch. That price is the same no matter if the child is 5 years old or 15 years old, yet the amount of food consumed by these two age groups is vastly different. If you couple that hurdle with rising food costs, it becomes a major challenge to provide these schools with quality, healthy meals. When you take a step back and look at the larger economic landscape, it is unfortunate that the majority of these federal reimbursement schools serve the communities that also have the highest obesity rates.[Editor: Read our Pie in the Sky blog for a discussion of federal reimbursement rates for school meals.]

Despite these obstacles, at Red Rabbit we made it a part of our DNA to serve these schools. By making all of our meals from scratch in our kitchens, we are able to keep both food costs and waste down, all while serving this community.

What do you think are the opportunities for food advocacy in the de Blasio Administration?

A major opportunity for change lies in allowing public schools to have the same sort of autonomy as public charter and private schools when it comes to opting out of DOE food. Through the years, we have fielded inquiries from many public schools and parents of students in public schools, asking how they can get Red Rabbit to be their food provider. Unfortunately, we’ve encountered some red tape where that is concerned, and while we’ve been able to establish snack programs at a couple of public schools, it’s been through private parent funding. Currently, the only way for one public school to opt out of the DOE food is for an entire district to do so. It’s unfortunate that public schools who want more choices in who provides their food have been limited in this way, and the government has the power to change it. Hopefully, this is something the de Blasio administration will consider.

Both food insecurity and obesity are connected to the same underlining issue in the country: our food culture. In recent history, we, as a nation, have not placed a huge emphasis on quality, healthy foods. Rather, the focus has fallen more upon ease of consumption and cost. We believe that a two-fold approach is needed to reduce a two-fold problem:

1) By teaching kids as early as possible to choose the freshest, most nutritious foods available, such choices will eventually permeate the overall food culture. What kids learn, they share with everyone!

2) Greater access to information and resources via social media, as well as supporting local initiatives like neighborhood gardening and urban farming, enables adults to secure more nutritious food for their families and reinforce what is being learned at school by their children. It’s just not enough to put all efforts into only one or the other.

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Working to keep the conversation about access to healthy food for all in the public dialogue.

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