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Del Mar school district rolls out new Universal Meals program

The new quick cafe at Torrey Hills School.
(Courtesy of DMUSD)

With the start of the school year, California became the first state in the country to implement a statewide Universal Meals Program, providing free breakfast and lunch for all children every school day. Per the new law passed last year, all students may request breakfast and lunch at no charge, regardless of their eligibility for free or reduced-price meals.

In the Del Mar Union School District, meal service started on the first day of school on Aug. 15. Every day students have two options for breakfast and lunch, one option is always vegan and allergy friendly (dairy and gluten free).

One of the biggest impacts in Del Mar has been the increase in meals served. In May 2022 the district served 16,500 total meals through its lunch vendor Choice Lunch. On the first week of school, the district served 14,898 meals which included 3,857 breakfasts and 11,041 lunches.

“The students are participating,” said Tiana Barton, director of business support services at the board’s Aug. 24 meeting. “They like the meals and we even had an influx as the days went on so by Friday, it was our highest numbers. Friends are telling friends, so that’s been exciting to see.”

Participation rates are currently 28% of students for breakfast and 69% for lunch. Barton said kids are enjoying the experience of picking their meals and the check-out process through the new point of sale system.

The district faced several obstacles to implement Universal Meals—it had no central kitchen, no warming kitchens, no designated area to serve meals and a small, one-person child nutrition services department. At the time, vendor Choice Lunch was running the district’s school lunch program.

Barton said they took action about a year ago to identify staffing needs, hiring drivers and installing quick cafes for food service at seven school sites. Each school had its own custom fitting of school colors and logos and every cafe layout was slightly different to meet the needs of the campus. The installation of the quick cafes cost $853,917, which will not be reimbursed by the state.

The district partnered with outside vendor One Kitchen Collaborative, which prepares all the district’s meals as it doesn’t have a kitchen up and running yet. As soon as the district completes its new central kitchen at the new Pacific Sky School, it will be able to take over meal prep, ideally by January.

“Going from nothing to a full program has been amazing,” said Chris Delehanty, assistant superintendent of business services.

The next steps for this large program include continuing to assess staffing needs, fine-tuning the ordering, developing a recycling program and a “share table” for unopened items to help eliminate waste.

“The goal is to eliminate as much waste as possible by right-sizing the ordering,” Barton said.

The district budgeted $300,000 from the general fund to implement the program this first year and it will have a better idea if that is the right number in the coming months. The district will get reimbursement from the state for meals served, which is why tracking breakfasts and lunches with the point of service system is important.


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