For YPO member Lulu Cohen-Farnell, motherhood was life-changing in more ways than most, taking her on an exciting entrepreneurial journey with Real Foods for Real Kids (RFRK), an award-winning catering company serving nutritious meals to kids in childcare centers, schools and camps throughout the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area.

Challenging the status quo

It all began in 2004, when new mom Cohen-Farnell — at the time working for a marketing, design and brand strategy agency — was looking for childcare for her son, Max, when she discovered something troubling: The food served to the little ones, regardless of neighborhood, price or educational philosophy, was highly processed and designed for convenience, not optimal nutrition. 

“The pre-packaged convenience food model was the only game in town, not because it was the right way to feed kids, but because no one had challenged the status quo,” says Cohen-Farnell. “Max was born at home, breastfed for 18 months and always fed high quality organic, nutritious and delicious foods. I wanted to continue to train and expand his palate and base his earliest memories on the right kind of food.” 

So, when she eventually chose the YMCA Family Development Centre in Downtown Toronto, she sent Max off with his own food and water. As the caregivers, center director, and kids became more interested in Max’s lunches and snacks, the YMCA asked Cohen-Farnell to help them create a healthier food program for the 100 kids under their care.

Having grown up in Paris in a home where tasty healthy food made from scratch was the norm, Cohen-Farnell jumped at the chance. “My grandmother’s kitchen was my playground. We would visit the farmers market several times a week and I was encouraged to smell and touch the food. We interacted and exchanged ideas with the farmers and local producers as we planned the delicious meals we would cook together that day.”

With the green light from the YMCA, Cohen-Farnell started a five-month bespoke snack pilot program based on locally grown and prepared healthy foods she sourced and delivered with the help of a local food grocer. 

“This is how Real Food for Real Kids was born,” she says. “Out of love for providing kids in childcare the type of foods they need to grow healthy bodies and minds.” 

Expanding to fill a need

The pilot for Max’s YMCA was a success, so Cohen-Farnell’s contract was extended to provide the same snack program for 12 other YMCA centers in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. Meanwhile, Cohen-Farnell’s passion to change the quality of food provided in childcare centers began to attract the attention of local and international media, providing her with speaking opportunities about the importance of feeding kids real food.

In 2005, another group of childcare centers approached Cohen-Farnell about providing more than 200 children with snacks and hot lunches — and the nascent team was ready. 

“I quit my job in May 2004. We took a second mortgage on our house, hired a couple of amazing people, and went through a full-scale re-think of childcare food service,” she recalls. 

While her husband David focused on creating an operational model capable of producing the quality products at a price the nonprofit childcare centers could afford, Cohen-Farnell focused on recipe development and marketing. 

“The strategy from the start was to provide kids in childcare centers deliciously prepared hot lunches and snacks made of healthy meat and fish, fruits and vegetables, free of artificial ingredients, fake sweeteners, factory-farmed meats, and fillers of any kind,” says Cohen-Farnell. 

Twenty years and four kitchen locations later, following the same strategy, the team has grown to 151 people, serving meals and snacks to an average of 50,000 kids a day in childcare centers, schools and camps in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. 

While currently not involved in the day-to-day operations — in 2017 she took a step back from work to heal herself from Lyme disease using bee venom therapy — Cohen-Farnell continues to play a role in the strategic planning, research and development as well as spreading and sharing her knowledge in public speaking engagements related to health optimization and longevity.

RFRK’s future plans include expanding geographically and to the childcare centers that have a kitchen but require made-from-scratch products to solve complex nutritional challenges. 

“We will always maintain the same high-quality values that we started with. It has to be healthy and delicious — while maintaining the same culture of a small company with strong family values and a love of real food,” says Cohen-Farnell.

Advice for overcoming the challenges of impact entrepreneurship

For Cohen-Farnell, witnessing the direct positive impact on children’s health and families has been especially rewarding. And while she admits it was never an easy path, she credits their organic growth on the following key tenets: 

Build a strong company culture. 

Cohen-Farnell attributes a large part of RFRK’s success to their strong company culture, which she built around a sustainability framework of prioritizing people, planet and profit.

“People are excited to join us in our mission to change the way kids eat and perceive food,” she says. “RFRK staff eat the same amazing lunch we provide to the kids we serve, sharing delicious healthy meals made fresh from scratch and with love.”

As North American food habits remain on a dangerous slide away from nutritious and locally grown whole foods, toward cheap, highly processed convenience foods, our work continues to heavily rely on education. ”
— Lulu Cohen-Farnell, Founder and Food Innovation Master, Real Food for Real Kids share twitter

Today, RFRK remains a women-driven workforce, with more than 50% of the leadership team female. “Women, especially mothers, are more connected to food, because of the nurturing side. But I would say a lot of people, both men and women, come to work with us because of our mandate to change the way children perceive food, challenging the perception that kids are commodities.” 

Invest in operational excellence.

“This is a very complex business on many levels. We have a mandate to deliver on time, in full, at correct temperatures, and within 15 minutes of our set delivery time every day,” she says.

 “We also need to cater to kids with allergies and food sensitivities and ensure strict quality controls while scaling the operation. The possibilities of making mistakes at every stage means high risks in this labor-intensive business.” 

Disrupt the norm and go beyond.

When Cohen-Farnell’s program came up against government nutrition mandates, she advocated for a change in the definition of locally grown food and helped update the Canadian Food Guide. 

“The written, outdated rule defining ‘locally grown food’ was 50 kilometers from farm to kitchen. But this was no longer accurate given the expansion of urbanization, as the closest farms were a bit over 100 kilometers from the Real Food Kitchen,” says Cohen-Farnell. “So, I challenged this and was able to change the definition of ‘locally grown food’ to ‘food grown within the province.’ That was a big win, not only for Real Food Kitchen but for all food institutions in Canada focusing on locally grown.”

Turn challenges to opportunities to innovate and give back

Like so many other catering companies, RFRK faced several disruptions during the pandemic lock down restrictions. But with team support, government funding and the introduction of cold chain catering (temperature-controlled supply chain packaging systems), RFRK introduced new capabilities to deliver meals to families at home.

Another ongoing challenge remains the cost of production as food prices increase. Cohen-Farnell and her team are committed to making food from scratch and prioritizing both quality and affordability. “This has made us integrate and introduce all kinds of innovations to keep prices affordable while ensuring our high-quality standards are not compromised in a very competitive industry,” says Cohen-Farnell.

She adds that with all the cooking from scratch for thousands of kids every day, small amounts of excess food are inevitable. Since 2010, RFRK has been expanding its Real Food Forward initiative, building relationships with community organizations, including women’s shelter homes to donate thousands of kilos of surplus food, which would otherwise have gone to waste.

Continue to educate and inspire.

Today, the family-owned and operated company continues to work and collaborate with government and other stakeholders, investing in educational campaigns and creating awareness of healthier food choices for kids.

“In 2004, people did not pay much attention to the importance of feeding kids quality foods and instilling healthy eating habits for life. No emphasis was put on sustainably grown foods. We had to educate children and families to take their nutrition seriously and eat better quality foods,” recalls Cohen-Farnell. 

“As North American food habits remain on a dangerous slide away from nutritious and locally grown whole foods, toward cheap, highly processed convenience foods, our work continues to heavily rely on education.”