Suya chicken, chana masala, and pollo guisado. These aren't the first dishes that typically come to mind when you think of healthy school lunches. But that's changing, thanks to black-owned school food management company Red Rabbit.
There's long been agreement that school meals have the power to help children learn more effectively - and teach kids how to make better food choices. But they're more powerful - and more satisfying - when the foods on the tray feel familiar to eaters. Red Rabbit creates scratch-made meals that are both wholesome and culturally relevant for more than 200 schools in New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia. The meals are priced below federal reimbursement rates.
"Everyone has a different idea of what healthy means," says Red Rabbit Chief Business Officer Naeema Arrastia-Rateau. "Providing children with nutritious meals that allows them to be physically fulfilled is one thing. The other thing we do is provide a sense of self in meals. All of our meals are essentially reflections of the communities we're serving."
Photo: Suya Roasted Chicken with Jollof Rice and Pikliz: Suya Chicken with Jollof Rice shows up regularly on Red Rabbit's menus.
Photo credit: Red Rabbit
Many of the schools that Red Rabbit serves are majority students of color, and their backgrounds are diverse. "Our primary focus is to understand the actual cultural heritages of the children we're serving, so there's a sense of comfort. When kids are happy they just learn better," says Arrastia-Rateau.
Red Rabbit develops menus that are tailored to the populations of an individual district or school. And it all starts with the company's chefs, all of whom are professionally trained, talking directly to students. "Our kitchen team is trained to have conversations with kids," Arrastia-Rateau says. "We'll ask, 'What do you eat at home?' 'What do you eat when your family is celebrating?'"
Once the chefs gather student input, they'll work with Red Rabbit regional directors and learning and development team members to come up with recipes that will please kids' palates while meeting National School Lunch Program (NSLP) regulations. Meals are run through a rubric to ensure they're nutritionally compliant and on budget. Before being added to a menu, they're reviewed by a registered dietitian.
Red Rabbit doesn't view meeting NSLP requirements as a challenge. "It's foundational for what we do," says Arrastia-Rateau. And since everything Red Rabbit serves is made from scratch, it's easy to control for factors like sodium, added sugars, and whole grains. "All of our fruits and vegetables are fresh. They're never canned. We cut our own fruit. We have our own bakery," she says. "When you're cooking with whole ingredients, the nutritional side is a given."
Creating authentic meals that are true to a student body's roots can be tough when other dietary restrictions come into play though. "We're no nut and no seed across the board. That can be challenging when you're making pesto, for instance," Arrastia-Rateau says. But the fact that the Red Rabbit chefs have professional culinary backgrounds means they can draw on their experience to build recipes that still feel authentic and taste delicious. (The pesto is made with fresh basil, Parmesan, garlic, olive oil, dried oregano, pepper, and lemon juice.)
Red Rabbit preps some of its meals in central commissary kitchens located in Harlem, Long Island City, and Staten Island. Those meals are then delivered fresh to the company's New York City schools, many of which have little to no dedicated kitchen space. For locations with more room, Red Rabbit employs a restaurant-in-a-school model. "We'll take over the school kitchen, put a team in there to make meals for that school," Arrastia-Rateau explains.
New menus are developed on a weekly basis, but there are some perennial favorites that have stayed on repeat. When schools were closed during the early days of covid, Red Rabbit Nigerian-Jamaican chef Ola Wadley developed a recipe for Suya Chicken and Jollof Rice based on one she used to cook at home with her grandmother. "We started serving it to adults [for whom we were providing meals] during covid, now it's part of our regular kid menu," says Arrastia-Rateau. Other longstanding winners include ropa vieja with Spanish rice and plantains and pulled BBQ turkey sandwiches.
And of course, there's the kid favorite that seem to transcend any and all cultural boundaries: Mac and cheese. True to Red Rabbit style, the company makes it with homemade cheese sauce, with a few adjustments based on what the students in a school or district like best. "Sometimes we make it cheesy or sometimes we bake it based on kids' preference," Arrastia-Rateau says.