LCUSD to get new lunch choices

Lunch is being done differently in the La Cañada Unified School District this year.

La Cañada Unified replaced food-service company Sodexo Inc., which has held the contract for the district's lunch program for the past five years, with School Nutrition Plus to prepare lunches for its four school cafeterias.

When Sodexo's contract expired, the district published a request for bids from other companies, as it is required to do every five years, said Mike Leininger, the district's assistant superintendent of facilities and operations. The district received two bids: one was from Sodexo, which previously was called Sodexho America LLP, and the other from School Nutrition Plus, which was founded less than two years ago.

School Nutrition Plus' $24,200 bid for an 11-month contract was approximately half of Sodexo's bid, Leininger said.

The reason School Nutrition Plus could offer such a low bid is because it isn't a large corporation like Sodexo, said Emily Burson, RD, the company's founder and president.

"We are a small, local company without much overhead," she said.

The company is headquartered in Marina del Rey.

Both companies delivered presentations to a selection committee along with their bids. The selection committee was composed of Leininger, a nutrition committee run by La Cañada PTA Council, La Cañada High administrators and elementary and high-school parents.

"We have been hoping for something like this," said Debbie Kawamura, a member of the nutrition committee. "We are hoping it will work out. We want the food to be tasty and presentable but at the same time healthy for the kids to eat."

In the end, the committee chose School Nutrition Plus.

"We had been with someone for five years and kind of ran the gamut of what they could do and [Burson] came in with some new, fresh ideas," Leininger said. "That along with the cost made it seem like a logical choice."

Although the district has never worked with her company before, administrators are familiar with Burson. She worked with La Cañada Unified for a year and a half as a consultant to the district with Sodexo.

This familiarity, along with the price differential, made the switch easier for the district, Leininger said. This was evidenced by the school board's unanimous decision to approve the contract agreement with School Nutrition Plus on May 4.

"I started this company with a desire to bring a customized approach to schools," Burson said. "We are a small company so we can tailor our program to each school we work for."

School Nutrition Plus brings to the table a mindset focused on nutrition, something that district parents have been waiting on for a long time, Kawamura said.

"We are hoping it will be a great collaboration because we're hopefully both working toward the same goal," Kawamura said. "We want it to be tasty and presentable for the kids, but also make it good for the kids to eat."

School Nutrition Plus currently has a client list of 18 school districts. The firm's goal is to run a financially successful program and take school lunches "back to basics by serving real food and supporting the local economy," Burson said.

Along with the change in food-service suppliers, a few other changes are coming to district cafeterias — and none of these changes involves an increase in entrée prices.

Among them is "Fresh Picked," a School Nutrition Plus program in which fresh produce is brought into cafeterias directly from local farmers. The program also includes cooking from scratch in order to reduce the use of processed foods while supporting local farmers and vendors.

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