By Karen Billing
A group of Del Mar Union School District parents is calling for improvement on the food that gets put on their children’s plates for school lunch. Del Mar Heights parent Lee Yen Anderson has paired with Jodie Block, a registered dietician and Sage Canyon parent, to lead an effort to overhaul the school lunch program, creating one that offers food that is more nutritious and appealing for students.
The two hope to generate a parent survey to help them design a new menu and go out to bid on a food vendor to implement the menu. They are aiming for an ambitious, accelerated process that would have the survey results in by February, a board vote in March, and a contract signed by May with the new lunch program in by the first day of school on Aug. 29.
“I think it’s important to give parents a voice in what they want for their children,” Anderson said.
Anderson said there has been falling sales in the school lunch program and from anecdotal evidence she said that the meals do not meet parents’ quality requirements.
“I’ve spoken to several parents who would really appreciate the opportunity for the children to receive a nutritious hot lunch so they don’t have to stress in the morning preparing it,” said Ocean Air parent Yana Mohanty. “The district is really well positioned to make improvements in school lunches.”
Block said that there also needs to be an improvement in nutrition education, helping kids make informed decisions that will benefit them into adulthood.
“Schools that have coupled improvement in school lunch with nutrition curriculum reported an increased preference for fruits and vegetables,” Block said.
During a recent Nutrition Week at Del Mar Heights, students learned to cook bean chili, berry smoothies and veggie omelets.
“I have parents telling me their kids still want a veggie omelet every day,” Anderson said. “I think children are open to change.”
Currently, the district partners with San Dieguito Union High School District to provide their meals. The districts have been working together since 2006, but Alicia Pitrone Hauser, SDUHSD’s director of nutrition services, said that they haven’t been able to work on improving the program due to administration changes within Del Mar.
She said like the parents, she has very similar goals to make the program better.
“I’ve noticed and been concerned that lunch participation is not where it needs to be,” Pitrone Hauser said.
The program started at a 35 percent participation rate and has gradually gone down from there, she said.
Meals offered to children include an entrée, milk and another menu item, and students are required to select two of the three menu items. A sample meal includes an orange chicken rice bowl, mixed salad cup, pineapple tidbits, jungle crackers and milk.
Anderson said that sometimes in the split lunch periods schools have, the older kids can arrive to find no vegetable or fruit items left and because they have to take two end up with the only option of the crackers. She said an online ordering system would be a great feature of a new program, to make those decisions in advance so every kid could get what they want.
In working with the previous DMUSD superintendent, Pitrone Hauser said they developed the menu to offer the items that were most popular to keep the numbers up.
“It’s a lot of chicken,” Pitrone Hauser said.
To note, February’s calendar has chicken nuggets, chicken taquitos, teriyaki chicken, popcorn chicken, chicken patty sandwiches, and chicken strips.
“I feel for Del Mar because you have no food preparation facilities and that poses a challenge,” Pitrone Hauser said.
Superintendent Jim Peabody said it is difficult as the schools have to follow food-handling laws in creating food service environments. None of the schools are equipped for warming or cooling food; they only have rooms to distribute milk.
“With funding in the capital improvement fund (CIP), we can start to take a look at designing an area at our campuses where food can be distributed so we can get a little better quality,” Peabody said.
Board member Doug Perkins said the timing is right—as they move forward with finalizing their district office needs under budget, they would have about $1.8 million left over in the CIP fund.
As the school lunch plan was only an informational item, the board said they would consider action on the program on a future agenda.
Nutritionist Jodie Block’s steps for a great lunch:
- Choose fruits and vegetables. Aim for five servings a day. A serving of carrots is about six baby carrots; a fruit serving could be one medium orange.
- Let whole grains reign. Grains include breads, cereals, rice and pasta.
- Know the facts about fat. Kids need some fat in their diets but don’t need to eat too much of it. No food is bad but you may want to eat higher fat lunch foods like French fries, macaroni and cheese and chicken nuggets less often and in smaller portions.
- Slurp sensibly. If kids don’t like milk, choose water. Avoid juice drinks and soda.
- Steer clear of packaged snacks. It’s OK to have once in awhile but they shouldn’t be on your lunch menu.