Today, the 254,000 students, on average, who eat a free breakfast in city schools are offered two Back to the Roots cereals in addition to three more conventional choices from General Mills, Kellogg and Post Foods.
One 28-gram serving of Back to the Roots Cinnamon Clusters, for instance, has half as much sugar and four-fifths as many calories as the same amount of Kellogg’s Frosted Mini-Wheats, which are still offered in New York schools. The Kellogg product is made of five ingredients, including the preservative butylated hydroxytoluene and gelatin, and has eight added vitamins. The Back to the Roots cereal has just four ingredients, no preservatives and no added vitamins; it is certified organic, and organic vitamins are hard to find.
“Breakfast is really important to us, and we’re trying to get our menu to where we want it to be,” said Mr. Goldstein of the school district, where all 1.1 million students are eligible for free breakfasts. “In the world we live in, though, there are so many constraints, so being able to offer Back to the Roots cereals for us is like a breath of fresh air.”
Public schools are under enormous pressure to contain costs and provide foods that children will actually eat, factors that make it harder to offer higher-quality foods.
In 2010, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, the first significant overhaul of school meal programs in about 15 years. The law updated the nutritional standards school districts must meet to qualify for federal subsidies and all but banished soda, candy and other junk food.
Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said schools have made huge improvements since the regulations went into effect in 2012 and 2013. “It’s not anywhere near perfect,” she said, “but this is a journey toward providing healthier meals that kids will like.”
Mr. Goldstein said New York City spends 90 cents to $1 on food for each school breakfast, and has a hard time finding suppliers who can deliver products to fit that budget and at the volume needed.
That was the challenge for Back to the Roots, which started to woo New York school officials about a year ago. The eight-year-old company in Oakland, Calif., is tiny compared with General Mills and Kellogg. And though it had landed its cereals in school lunchrooms in Pasadena and San Jose, Calif., and in Phoenix, Mr. Goldstein questioned whether the company could guarantee a consistent supply.
Then there was the cost. An 11-ounce carton of Back to the Roots cereal costs $4 to $5 in stores, while a similar-size box of a Kashi cereal from Kellogg is around $3.50.
“Producing a food product that is fundamentally better for kids and that kids are going to want to eat at the scale and consistency needed is a huge challenge,” said Sam Kass, who was the chef in the White House during most of the Obama administration and oversaw Michelle Obama’s efforts to improve children’s diets.
It was Mr. Kass who introduced Mr. Goldstein, an old friend, to Back to the Roots. Mr. Kass is an investor in the company through his role as a partner at Acre Venture Partners, which invests in food businesses.
The next potential obstacle was students’ taste buds, which have been conditioned to crave cereals containing at least six grams of sugar, or twice the amount in Back to the Roots cereals. (Many cereals in the grocery store contain 13 grams or more.)
For three years, the school system has been testing foods with children of all ages and soliciting their opinions.
“We’ve learned the hard way that we had to stop making decisions here about what kids would eat and let kids tell us what they would eat,” Mr. Goldstein said. “We don’t test anything unhealthy, but within the realm of what’s possible in terms of healthiness and cost, we let the kids decide.”
The results of those tests are sometimes surprising. Back to the Roots was convinced that its Cocoa Crisps cereal would be a home run, but it wasn’t the favorite among the students. They liked Purple Corn Flakes best. “The milk turns purple, and kids love that,” Mr. Goldstein said.
That turned into a problem last fall, when Back to the Roots had trouble finding enough organic purple corn to fill the district’s order.
Food companies have software to help them stay in stock in grocery stores, but Alejandro Velez, a founder of Back to the Roots, said there is nothing similar for school cafeterias. “You literally are doing calculations on the back of an envelope,” Mr. Velez said.
The school district pays a little more for Back to the Roots cereals, but Mr. Goldstein said that is more than offset by their popularity among students, their organic ingredients and their lower sugar content.
Asked for comment, Kellogg officials said only that they had discontinued the two cereals that have been replaced.
Back to the Roots is among a growing number of smaller food companies looking to join school lunchrooms. Revolution Foods, perhaps the grandmother of the bunch, got its start in 2006 by providing healthier lunches made from fewer and higher-quality ingredients, an alternative to what the big food service companies that supply most school districts were offering.
This year, the Plant Based Foods Association, a trade group for companies that make things like nut-based butters and cheeses and soy milks, plans to push to make school food policy more open to alternatives to meats and dairy products.
Mr. Kass said he sees that effort as part of a transition that’s been going on for the last several years, as the big food companies long dominant on grocery shelves are displaced by smaller, more nimble start-ups. “Now these companies are able to talk to a contractor like the New York City public school system, which is not only interested in getting better food into school cafeterias, but also is willing to take a risk on a young company,” he said.
Nikhil Arora, the other founder of Back to the Roots, said the company was working with the school system to create cereals to replace some of the mainstream ones that remain in the schools. (In addition to Back to the Roots Cinnamon Clusters and Purple Corn Flakes, the district’s breakfast menu for March features Multi Grain Cheerios from General Mills; Frosted Mini-Wheats and Cinnamon Flakes from Kellogg; and a raisin bran from Post Foods.)
“This will be a faster process now with the support of the district and proven brand acceptance by the kids,” Mr. Arora said. “Which is the hardest part.”
New York’s decision to support the company could lead to more business, as Mr. Goldstein is chairman of the Urban School Food Alliance, a consortium of some of the country’s largest school districts — in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Dallas, Orlando, Fla., and, soon, Broward County, Fla. — that buys cafeteria supplies together to secure better prices.
“That age-old thing about if you can do it in New York, you can do it anywhere should stand up in this case,” Mr. Kass said.