Home cooking: Del Mar to launch in-house nutrition program with new district kitchen

Inside DMUSD's new central kitchen at Pacific Sky School.
(Copyright of DMUSD)

With the completion of the new central kitchen at Pacific Sky School this month, the Del Mar Union School District is aiming to have its own district-run child nutrition services program by the beginning of the 2023-24 school year.

Construction on the kitchen on the new Pacific Highlands Ranch campus was originally scheduled to be completed in January, however, it has already received approval from the health department and the finishing touches will be done in the coming weeks. The district had planned to partner with a food service management company to run its nutrition program but district staff’s recommendation now is to develop the program in-house with a new director of child nutrition services.

The new position has already been posted and a job description will be voted on at the board’s Nov. 16 meeting. The director will have an opportunity to start a brand new program with a brand new kitchen.

“I’m hoping we can find someone fantastic,” Trustee Katherine Fitzpatrick said at the board’s Oct. 26 meeting. She said she would love to see someone with a background in schools and nutrition that can get staff up and running in the new kitchen as soon as possible.

With the start of the school year, California became the first state in the country to implement a statewide Universal Meals Program, requiring schools to provide a free breakfast and lunch for all children every school day. The district faced several challenges to implement Universal Meals as it didn’t have a central kitchen and no real place to serve meals to students. The district worked to develop the program from scratch, hiring staff, partnering with outside vendor One Kitchen Collaborative and installing quick cafes for food service at each school site.

Tiana Barton, director of business support services, said the district has built a strong partnership with One Kitchen Collaborative, which has worked to make the program welcoming for all students. They have also been able to adjust the menu to serve up the most-liked meals in order for it to be successful.

In last few months, the most popular breakfast items have been muffins, cereal and breakfast bars. The days when cheeseburgers, chicken nuggets and chicken sandwiches are served for lunch have the highest participation. According to Assistant Superintendent of Business Services Chris Delehanty, the district is averaging about 950 breakfasts and 2,100 lunches served daily. The cost of meals served will be reimbursed by the state.

The new central kitchen on the Pacific Sky School campus.
(Copyright of DMUSD)

“One of the big things we’ve had to do is staff this program up,” Delehanty said of the program’s three delivery drivers, a support person for every school site and a one-hour office assistant per site.

As they have built up the program, they now have nearly all of the components of a child nutrition department, outside of a director and central kitchen staff. The district determined that to have a new company come in and manage their staff didn’t make a lot of sense, leading to the recommendation to bring on a director who will be in charge of building out the program and hiring necessary kitchen staff.

The district’s contract with One Kitchen Collective (OKC) runs through December and Delehanty said they are looking into options such as going month to month or a quarterly agreement. OKC could also possibly operate out of the new kitchen starting in January but negotiations have yet to be completed.

Another piece of the program that is still being developed are green initiatives for students to take part in —“We have always from the start tried to eliminate waste, that has been our goal,” Barton said.

Schools have created “share tables” where they encourage students to leave unopened food for others that may still be hungry. The district has also visited schools in the Encinitas Union School District to learn about their award-winning green initiatives and how students really take charge in the process. Encinitas developed the SCRAP Cart (Separate, Compost, Reduce And Protect), used to help teach students how to sort their lunchtime waste for composting, recycling and the landfill. Since the introduction of the carts in 2012, lunchtime waste has been reduced at each school in the district by over 80%.

The next step for Del Mar would be to pilot a green initiative at one school site and then move toward districtwide implementation.