By Karen Billing
Del Mar Union School District (DMUSD) parents want healthier, tastier school lunches for their children, according to a recently conducted survey.
A total of 1,039 families filled out a parent committee’s survey, an impressive 33 percent return rate.
The survey found that 71 percent were not satisfied with the lunch program, stating their main concerns were that the lunches fail to meet nutritional requirements, as well as the general lack of appeal and variety of the food served.
The effort to improve school lunches has been completely driven by a committee of about 10 parents, led by Lee Yen Anderson, a Del Mar Heights parent. The committee set up the survey as well as a round of meal tastings with potential vendors, such as Chickpeas, Ki’s Lunches, Revolution Foods and the Come On In! Café, on March 5-7 and March 10.
Anderson said the weekend tastings were well-attended by about 100 parents and students. For the last two tastings, they had to limit them to 50 people and had to close the reservations in a day.
The last tasting, on March 16, was to feature the current provider, the San Dieguito Union School District, with their newly developed April menu.
“It’s heating up,” said Anderson. “I’m hopeful that there will be an attempt by the district to get a new program, I think that parents are calling for the change. The challenge is the costs because better quality food obviously costs more.”
After each tasting the committee conducted exit surveys to see how the vendors were received and rated, said Yana Mohanty, committee co-chair. The committee plans to present its recommendations and survey results at the March 23 DMUSD board meeting. Ultimately the district will go out to bid on the new provider and it’s Anderson’s hope that a new program will be in place by the start of the next school year.
At the Thursday, March 10, presentation at Ocean Air, parents learned about Come On In Café, which currently offers its lunch program to two schools, including The Gillespie School in La Jolla.
Albert Sifuentes, co-owner of the café, said they do about 70 orders a day at Gillespie, for $5 each.
They offer pastas, sandwiches, soup, all-natural meats, organic vegetables, and fresh-cut fruits. For drinks they serve water and milk only. They serve buffet-style on recyclable trays and water is served in acrylic cups that can be washed and re-used.
Come on In! can also do same-day orders, which would be delivered to the school in individual bags for the children.
That night, the café served up a pasta dish, breadsticks, carrots and cherry tomatoes, watermelon slices and small squares of lemon tart dessert.
“I like it better,” said Sage Canyon third grader Jimmy Dysart. “You get dessert and an appetizer and I like how I could see what everything is (at the buffet).”
He said he doesn’t like some of the current district offerings because “it might be raw,” meaning cold or undercooked.
Most of the vendors serve their food buffet style but Revolution Foods also serves theirs in packages like the current district vendor. Del Mar Heights student Aiden Anderson said he prefers the buffet-style to having food pre-wrapped.
“Sometimes the cheese melts onto the packaging on the pizza,” said Aiden. “It’s so disgusting.”
Students wanted seconds on the café’s pasta dish and Chickpeas also got a positive review from children as they reported liking their hamburgers, homemade chicken nuggets and strawberries with apple sauce.
Current participation in the school lunch program is at 17 percent.
The survey found that the most important features of a lunch parents are looking for are meals that include whole grains, vegetables and fruits; food that is fresh and unprocessed and prepared on the same day; and meals without artificial coloring and flavoring, high fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated oils and hidden MSG.
Currently DMUSD charges $4.25 for its lunches and the survey indicated parents would be comfortable paying up to $4.75 for a lunch that met all their requirements.
The survey concluded that if more variety and nutritional and taste changes were made, respondents would order lunch 2,950 times a week, as opposed to the current rate of 1,116 a week.
“The whole effort has been challenging, it’s been a lot of work,” Mohanty said, noting she is optimistic that their efforts will result in an improved lunch program for the district. “As our survey results indicate, the majority of the community is behind our efforts.”