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Appalled by school lunches, young couple went to work

Chefs at Real Food for Real Kids prepare meals in Toronto.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Tell a group of elementary schoolkids that they'll be eating macaroni made not with orange cheese powder but with carrot puree for colour, and you may get a cacophonous "Augh!"

Or mention that the chicken nuggets will be crisped not with oil and fat but with flaxseed and millet for a healthier crunch, and the reaction would likely be just as bad.

These attitudes are a problem for David Farnell, the owner of Real Food for Real Kids, a Toronto company that specializes in healthy lunches and snacks for children. He sees something fundamentally amiss with North American attitudes toward kids' meals, particularly those served at schools and daycares – these meals often revert to the lowest common denominator of unhealthy "appeasement" food.

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As a former sommelier and for a time the North American director of a travel company, Mr. Farnell ended up in Toronto with his Parisian wife, Lulu Cohen-Farnell, and in 2002 began looking for a daycare for their son Max. But they had a hard time coming to terms with the processed food, nutrient-less nuggets and thawed fish sticks that would be fed to their child.

"We found euphemisms like sliced peaches. What it meant was canned peaches. I remember vividly explaining to Lulu the fifth or sixth time what Salisbury steak is. What is Salisbury steak?" Mr. Farnell said. "There was no real food."

So Max was sent to daycare with his own food.

"The director said, 'Wow, the food you're providing your son every day looks delicious, and the staff are all commenting on it. It all looks wonderful. But I'm just wondering why you're going to all that effort.'"

The daycare director loved the idea of a healthier alternative, so Ms. Cohen-Farnell tried to persuade the food providers serving the daycare to change their menus. But she got nowhere. They told her that they knew what kids liked.

So, she started her own healthy snack program, and parents signed up. In about two months, the program grew from one daycare with 93 kids to 13 daycares with 900 children, Mr. Farnell said. That's when he came on board to help his wife turn her operation into the company it is today, serving more than 15,000 kids across Toronto.

Real Food's strict mandate is "no artificial preservatives, no artificial colours, no factory-farmed meats. A nutritional focus, not just convenience focus," he said. The company makes some menu substitutions for considerations such as allergies, but largely the meals are the same for all customers, Mr. Farnell said.

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Because the meals are prepared in the early morning and delivered to schools and daycares, Mr. Farnell sees an opportunity to keep his large industrial kitchen running for the rest of the day. This would mean going after hospitals and other institutions.

"And the next step would be to replicate this kitchen in other major cities," Mr. Farnell said. First, he needs to figure out how to compete against larger food-service companies.

"I prefer to see [clients] as partners, where we could start selling things to them, increasing the healthfulness of their operations. We just have a different approach," Mr. Farnell said.

The Challenge: How can Mr. Farnell expand his healthy-food-for-kids business, with limited menu modifications, to a wider market?

THE EXPERTS WEIGH IN

Diane Chiasson, food service and retail expert, Chiasson Consultants Inc., Toronto

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I can see why this company went into a very vertical market, serving healthy foods for young children. But it's very competitive. Everybody is going in this direction.

All of these companies are going after hospitals, universities, corporations, you name it. So you have to come up with some kind of a differentiation. If it's healthy food, you really have to see what the other guys are offering.

When I look at this company, Real Food for Real Kids, it doesn't say Real Food for Everybody. If their arena is really for children, I think they should pursue getting more business with schools.

People try to be everything to everybody and lose their message. Maybe they could provide a service for entertainment centres for kids, like the Ontario Science Centre. Then you're going after centres that cater to children outside the arena of school and daycares.

Ryan Bird, spokesman for the Toronto District School Board

It can be difficult to offer food services in some schools given the proximity to restaurants and fast-food outlets in Toronto. Minutes away could be a pizza shop, a burger joint and countless other options.

It really depends on the location of the school. You could have a school in a relatively residential area, with not a lot of food options around. In those cases, typically the cafeteria or a food service would do better.

Marie Holloway, chief executive of Urban Acorn Catering, Toronto

Eighty-five per cent of my clients are either vegan or vegetarian. I build my menus according to my clients – I can get feedback instantly and create menus that make sense for them.

We do a vegan pop-up dinner once a month. Beyond vegan just being a cuisine, it's also a lifestyle. So if I'm going to participate in providing a service to this group of people, I want to get to know them beyond their dietary preferences. We do these supper clubs to reach out to that community, to customers. Real Food for Real Kids could do something like this to get to know potential customers better and offer menus specialized to them.

THREE THINGS THE COMPANY COULD DO NOW

Maintain focus

Targeting new markets risks diluting the company's message, so perhaps try broadening the customer base but still keep the focus on children's food.

Keep an eye on the competition

Study the locations of schools and other insitutions carefully. Nearby fast-food restaurants can hurt. Do a careful analysis of other food options.

Seek feedback

Host events to seek feedback and consider building menus specialized to individual clients, rather than one size fits all.

Interviews have been edited and condensed.

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About the Author

Guy Dixon is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail. More

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