Promising to cook “culturally relevant” meals with Black and brown kids in mind, a Black-owned school-food management company based in Harlem will be creating a hub in the Philadelphia region to serve local schools.

Red Rabbit has announced it has found a South Jersey location and will likely set up shop by summer, with the hopes of providing school meals by the fall. Company officials declined to name the spot.

Company CEO and founder Rhys Powell said he expects to employ “a few hundred regional people” at Red Rabbit, given its name by the child of a company employee.

In business for 16 years, Red Rabbit is the largest Black-owned K-12 school-food management company in the country. It has served more than 5.5 million meals per year to urban schools throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region, according to company figures.

Working with local food bank

For the last four years, Red Rabbit has been providing food to around 100 South Jersey schools, and has recently been making meals that have been distributed by the Food Bank of South Jersey, headquartered in Pennsauken, Powell says.

He said that the food has been prepared in the company’s 10,000-square-foot kitchen facility in Harlem, where chefs can make 500 chickens at once in a seven-rack deck oven.

Along with South Jersey schools, Powell hopes to work with charter schools in Philadelphia, he said in an interview Thursday. He said he’s approaching schools individually but is looking to one day have a business relationship with the School District of Philadelphia.

Once established in the region, Red Rabbit would provide chefs to schools that have kitchens, or deliver food “at precisely the right time and temperatures” that was cooked from scratch in a locally built Red Rabbit commissary, Powell said.

“In public schools in New York and the Philadelphia metro/South Jersey area, most of the kids are from Black and Latino heritage,” Powell said. “These are the kids we are serving, and expanding to the Philly area allows us to serve lots of districts in ways we weren’t able to before.”

Powell said that his company will continue to emphasize “the whole child,” not just feeding the body but educating students, through food, about culture.

“We are not going to be shy about talking about their heritage and making food to uplift their heritage. We see it as an act of social justice.”

Powell said that for 40 years or more, schools have presented “one type of fare — a Euro-centric menu. We told kids, ‘Eat this, and if you don’t like it there’s something wrong with you.’

“We want to address the whole child as part of a family with its own heritage and culture. Our role is to prepare foods for these kids so they can learn the cultural relevance of those foods.”

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Dishes include Puerto Rican pollo guisado, West African suya chicken, Nigerian jollof rice, and Indian chana masala.

To bring home the cultural message, Red Rabbit has provided educational programs for students, teachers, and parents, including in-school cooking labs, gardening labs, and after-school programs. When the pandemic hit, some of that work was carried on digitally, a spokesperson said. The emphasis has always been on connecting popular dishes to different heritages, or imparting interesting food-related facts, such as how pickling can be traced to Africa.

The subject of profiles in business publications such as Forbes and Crain’s New York, Powell, 41, was born in the Bahamas and attended MIT before leaving to work in finance on Wall Street.

Powell said he became disenchanted with trading stocks and longed to do work that both showed tangible results and served the social good. “I was looking to do the kind of job where I could see the people I was helping,” he said. “And I focused my efforts on kids.”

Red Rabbit’s work in South Jersey has been especially helpful during the pandemic, according to Jennifer Schaeffer, senior director of operations at the Food Bank of South Jersey.

She said that as COVID-19 raged in 2020, the food bank distributed more than 80,000 family meals created by Red Rabbit. “These healthy family meals were complete,” Schaeffer said, “with vegetables, protein, and carbs, served in pans which could be reheated. Each pan served a family of four.”

She added: “We have always had a strong relationship with Red Rabbit. We share in the same mission, to focus on not just filling bellies, but providing healthy, nutritious meals for families.”

Vincent Myers, director of special projects for the Woodbury City Public School District, in Gloucester County, said Red Rabbit food distributed by the food bank to the families of students was “super appreciated.” He added, “These were freshly catered meals, and they all went rather quickly.”

A spokesperson for the food bank said that while it’s “wonderful to note the cultural relevance and quality of food,” if a company cannot efficiently make and deliver meals, “it means little.” The spokesperson praised Red Rabbit for “its strength” in logistics — meeting demand “with operational efficiency.”

The idea of Red Rabbit coming to the area is “pretty exciting,” according to Cat Bartoli, national school lunch program director for Share Food Program, the largest distributor of food for low-income people in the Philadelphia region. Share also stores and delivers raw food products for more than 700 schools in the area, serving 305,000 students in Philadelphia schools, as well as schools in the four collar counties. The food, originating from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is used to supplement school meals provided by various purveyors.

Bartoli was interested in exploring a partnership, saying Red Rabbit “not only excels at food-service management, but it’s also thinking about the whole child. There aren’t other players with the type of philosophy that they bring in.”