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When COVID-19 challenged schools to rethink their lunch service, Ridgefield Academy’s Director of Food Services Paul Desiano found the timing perfect to launch a customized meal program. Instead of waiting in physically-distanced lines for their food to be served, students order individualized, homemade, takeout-style meals via iPads and computers from a menu of 25 options ranging from homemade pizza to Vietnamese Pho noodles.

“For safety reasons, having students wander through the dining hall perusing food stations and making their own salads or sandwiches just wasn’t an option,” comments Desiano. “We needed lunch to be safe and functional.” For the past several years, Desiano has been looking for a way to extend the customized “virtual lunchbox” platform the school has offered its Landmark Preschool students to the entire kindergarten - grade 8 school community. “With all of the safety protocols that come with food service during the pandemic, this was just the push we needed.”

Over the summer, Desiano and his team of chefs organized into 6 separate “restaurants,” each offering a different menu of food items from salads to pasta, to international foods, to burgers. Menus were created keeping in mind the meal preferences of children ages 5 - 14 as well as the resources of the kitchen. Desiano again teamed up with RA parent of alumni Jon Brennan, who generously donates the use of his MenuMavin online ordering app, to create an easy-to-use ordering system with the ability to write in special requests and the flexibility to periodically change the menu.

Each morning, students log onto the website and visit the “online restaurants” to make their selections. The orders are then printed out and given to the chef in charge of preparing food for that “restaurant.” Orders are individually made, from scratch, including the grinding of the meat for burgers and meatballs and the making of the pizza dough, and packaged in recyclable food containers with the student's name and order details stickered on the lid. “As a school that prides itself on empowering our students to be self-assured and confident, this program allows students to take charge of their own lunch. I’ve seen kindergarten students ordering lunch on their iPad by themselves. And, they are genuinely excited to receive their boxed lunch with their name on the top,” comments Kindergarten teacher Megan Maloney. Every lunch is made to order, and invites an exchange between the students and the chefs. It is not uncommon for the chefs to receive requests such as “could you add broccoli to my pasta?” or “only 5 slices of salami, please!”

The takeout meal approach also facilitates outdoor dining while the weather is nice. Only two classes can safely eat lunch at a time behind the plexiglass dividers that sit on the dining hall tables, so teachers are able to take their bags of lunches outdoors or to their classrooms. “Our students love having the flexibility to move outside on a beautiful day for lunch!,” comments Grade 6 teacher Diana Reid.

Initial feedback on the revamped lunch program has been tremendous. Students enjoy the increased choice and autonomy of placing their own orders and food waste and overall costs have been reduced. “I don’t know of any other school that is able to offer such a customizable and extensive lunch program in this way,” comments Desiano. “Everyone is excited about lunch now. That wasn’t always the case with a limited menu. We have empowered students to order food that they are excited to eat, and I don’t see us ever go back to the old way of lunch even after the pandemic ends!