By Karen Billing
A parent committee to improve school lunches in the Del Mar Union School District gave their recommendations to the board on March 23. The district is in the process of preparing a request for proposals for lunch vendors and will use the criteria provided by the committee to guide its request, ensuring that there isn’t a “race to the bottom.” Parents wanted the district to make it clear to potential vendors they want fresh, kid-friendly foods made with better ingredients.
A survey completed by 33 percent of district families found 71 percent of the respondents were not satisfied with the current lunch program that is provided by a partnership with the San Dieguito Union School District.
Pamela Baldwin, who works in child nutrition services at Ocean Air School, said she feels like a hypocrite having “nutrition” in her job title when she serves lunch to the students every day.
“I feel like the lunches are anything but nutritious,” Baldwin said, noting the main dish is pre-packaged and children pair it with chocolate milk, crackers, cookies and desserts such as donut holes. “Most kids completely bypass the fruits and vegetables. I’d like to see lunches with only healthy options so no matter what they choose, it would be nutritious.”
The survey found that the most important lunch features that 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.
Current participation in the district’s program has dipped to 17 percent, not only because of the nutritional quality of the food but because the children don’t find the options appealing.
The families surveyed currently buy a lunch a combined total of 1,116 times a week but said if more variety, nutritional and taste changes were made, they would order a combined total of 2,950 times a week.
“This is an untapped revenue source,” said committee member and dietician E. A. Stewart. “The survey shows our food counts could double if we offered the right food at the right price.”
District superintendent James Peabody agreed.
“The vendors were directed to provide what sells and they might have skipped over what’s good for kids,” he said to applause from several parents in the audience.
Peabody said that the current vendor instituted some changes to its April menu and they will be able to review how families responded to those changes at the end of the month.
The request for proposals will be open to any vendor to apply. Peabody said whichever vendor is selected by the district will hold a food tasting at the end of the year.
Committee member Yana Mohanty said it’s also important that the district pairs a nutritional education program in the curriculum with the lunch program.
“Kids need to be excited about the new options,” Mohanty said.