By Karen Billing
The Del Mar Union School District will contract with a private vendor to provide healthier school lunch fare. At a special meeting held on July 6, the board selected Choicelunch as the district’s new lunch program, following the trend of at least 20 other public school districts in the state that use a private meal provider, such as the Rancho Santa Fe School District.
“We’re making changes that move us to the forefront of nutrition in the area and also make it better for our families and the kids,” said trustee Doug Perkins.
Both district superintendent Jim Peabody and the Child Nutrition Committee endorsed Choicelunch as the top choice.
“Choicelunch was the only vendor that met every criteria we asked for,” said committee member Jodie Block.
Those eight criteria included: meals prepared from scratch daily; fresh fruit and vegetables not from a canned source; whole grains, vegetables and fruit; no artificial colors, preservatives, high fructose corn syrup or partially hydrogenated oils; meals with hormone-free dairy; meats that are free of nitrates and added hormones; meals that include local, seasonal and organic ingredients within budget; and no desserts.
The district was picking between six vendors who submitted bids: Encinitas Unified School District; Preferred Meal Systems; Revolution Foods; Come on In! Café; Ki’s; and Choicelunch.
Winning bidder Choicelunch was founded by three college friends, Keith Cosbey, Justin Gagnon and Ryan Mariotti, in 2003 with the aim of bringing “meaningful change” to the way kids eat school lunch.
“We’re very excited to be working with Del Mar next year,” said Cosbey.
Choicelunch prepares everything they serve up from scratch with exceptions made for local tortillas and artisan breads that are sourced.
“No bright pink milk, no blue lips and purple teeth. No processed meat on sticks, no dinosaur-shaped nuggets” boasts the website.
The vendor offers great variety with seven meat options, 12 vegetables and meals such as pasta marinara, Asian chicken salad and chicken noodle soup.
Currently, Choicelunch has kitchens in Danville, San Jose and Huntington Beach — Del Mar’s food will come from the Huntington Beach location daily.
“We are never late,” Cosbey promised, adding they also have back-up local vans and vendors just in case.
Yana Mohanty, co-chair of the Child Nutrition Committee, said a major focus of the committee’s evaluation of the vendors was making sure the program stayed revenue neutral. The district’s cafeteria fund pays for the food, staff salaries and benefits, and gasoline and maintenance for trucks. Revenue incoming includes food sales and National School Lunch Program reimbursements for each meal served.
“What we learned is participation is crucial,” Mohanty said. “We focused on how to keep participation up.”
Throughout the 2010-11 school year, participation was about 17 percent with a peak of 18 percent in November and dipping down to 15 percent in June. Participation in the school lunch program is the lowest it’s been since 2007, when the program had a participation rate of 35 percent.
Mohanty said that the numbers show that as the price went up, sales went down, as well. In 2007-08, lunches cost $3, now they are $4.25.
“Stabilizing school lunch prices, particularly district overhead, is vital to the future health of the cafeteria fund,” Mohanty said.
She noted increased costs feed an unhealthy cycle — the lunch price increases, which causes parents to buy fewer lunches, which drains the cafeteria reserve funds, which means the funds need to increase, driving the cost up for parents.
Choicelunch was the second-lowest priced lunch at $3.24.
Board member Scott Wooden expressed concerns that if participation doesn’t go up, the district might blow through its cafeteria fund balance by the end of the year. He wants to see the district re-visit how the program is doing.
Cathy Birks, assistant superintendent of business services, said they will monitor the program but stated that the district was optimistic about the new vendor’s potential.
“Based on the promises Choicelunch has made I feel confident that out numbers will increase and that will definitely help our fund balance,” Birks said.