The catered cafeteria

Ready for a school lunch you don’t have to make?

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Stuck in a ham-and-cheese rut? After months of slapping together sandwiches while trying to find library books and gym socks, you’ve hit a lunch block. But if you’re desperate for a lunch let-up, it may be time to ask if a catered school lunch program is the answer.

“When it comes to making lunches, people are busy and look for shortcuts,” says Ruthie Burd, founder of the Toronto-based Lunch Lady group, a caterer with franchises from Ontario to BC, serving over 800 schools. “You want to do the right thing, but you may not have the time. So often you put in whatever they’ll eat because you’re worried they won’t eat or there’ll be a fight about it.”

Catering to kids

Hot or catered lunch programs are a simple concept — a school, the parent council and school administration hire a caterer to provide participating students a prepared meal at an agreed frequency. This may be anywhere from twice a week to once a month. Often the parent council chooses sample menus (which include hot and cold lunches) to offer parents, who can pick meal items, including sides, entree, drink and dessert, for their child.

Flexibility varies; some providers accommodate lunch requests phoned in or entered online that morning. Certain caterers also work with kids’ food allergies and cultural restrictions. The Lunch Lady program, for example, offers halal and vegetarian options, as well as choices for those allergic to dairy, egg, gluten, soy and so on.

Meals cost anywhere from $3.50 to $7, depending on what you pick and how often the service is used. And many lunch programs also offer a fundraising alternative to tired pizza days. “With our program, parent councils can mark up meals to raise funds for the schools,” says Michelle Cody, manager of Bread Garden KidsEat!, a caterer serving about 50 schools in the the Vancouver area. Markups can range from 35 cents to $1 a meal.

Homework helps

So how can you get a lunch program in your school? First, brace yourself for some volunteer hours to make it happen. If it’s something you really want to see in your school, Gigi Deelstra of Kidssentials, which caters to about 50 schools in the Toronto area, advises collecting as much information as you can before meeting with the school. “Administrators are busy, so I’d suggest researching this project by calling caterers and asking questions.” Things to look for include: how long the service has been offered; whether it meets provincial nutrition guidelines; whether the food is made fresh that day or prepackaged; and what the cancellation policy is.

After bringing the idea to the parent council and the school’s administration, you’ll likely need to arrange for a survey of parents to determine the level of interest — some caterers require a minimum commitment. If there’s enough, arrange for a tasting, with children, to find out how yummy (or not) the food actually is.

Now relax and pour yourself an extra cup of coffee on those mornings you don’t have to pack lunch.

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