"Never trust a skinny chef,” the old adage goes, but in the case of Marc DeGiovanni, an exception should be made. As the head of local catering company Delunchous, DeGiovanni has one mission: to “tantalize the palate” of Santa Fe’s children via nutritious and mindful school lunches made from scratch.
"Oh God," the New Hampshire native says, recalling his own school lunch experience. "The cookie-cutter rib sandwiches, the frozen corn on the cob and other things that I can't even remember because I choose not to."
Formally taking over Delunchous in late 2013 and turning it into the only local company of its kind, DeGiovanni chose to break the chain.
"I saw the opportunity to do things better and a little different," DeGiovanni says, standing in his 1,600-square-foot production kitchen located just off the Cerrillos Corridor, surrounded by speed racks, industrial convection ovens and an endless array of cooking gadgets.
The business' current incarnation came after DeGiovanni was "bouncing around from resort to resort" across the country. "It was just a tremendous amount of gluttony," he says. "It was all about having the most expensive ingredients or bragging rights, and there was nothing really holistic about it."
His goal now is to "incorporate a tremendous amount of organics," he says, producing a dozen wrappers of various organic foods he's used in the last week. His chicken and milk hails from Shamrock Farms, and his beef is microbiologically tested.
That's an undertaking, given Delunchous' $6.50 price per meal. "The quality of most public school lunches is pretty dismal, because they're capped at $3.06," he says. "That's gotta pay for the labor, electricity, refrigeration—so you can't be spending a whole lot on food." His approach, he points out, is against industry standards.
"I spend about $3.50 on food, which is, in most people's minds, ridiculous. It's steering towards bankruptcy very quickly," he says. "Most restaurants don't spend more than 30 percent on food."
DeGiovanni estimates that he needs to be serving a minimum of 150 meals a day in order to start receiving a salary. He's currently at 110. Delunchous' client roster includes Rio Grande School, New Mexico School for the Arts and Desert Montessori.
Leave your sloppy Joe expectations at the door.
The day's menu consists of chicken Caesar salad with housemade, black pepper-infused dressing, Mediterranean couscous, a generous serving of fruit, and a yogurt parfait topped with fresh berries. There's also a vegetarian option.
"It is sophisticated, but more times than not, they will eat it. Especially if they're hungry," DeGiovanni jokes.
The previous day's menu was slightly more down-home— burgers and fries.
"We balance it up; we have to give and take." Mixing up the menu, he says, is key when it comes to training future foodies and feeding persnickety preschoolers.
"I've had parents of first graders tell me that their kids would never eat vegetables," he says, "and now at least they pick at them, so it's a lifelong learning process."
"With the tremendous amount of money we're spending on health care, this is a holistic approach to it," he explains. "Start eating healthy now, and you'll spend less later on in life and you're gonna feel better."
Another saying, "You are what you eat," rings true for DeGiovanni. "Eating is probably 50 percent, if not more, of where our health comes from—it's just common sense," he says. "It's been one of the White House's main focuses, so this is not just a trend but a reality."
In December 2010, President Obama signed into law the child nutrition bill, which had bipartisan support and included a $4.5 billion expansion of the school lunch program that currently feeds some 31 million children annually. With recent conflicting reports on its efficacy, the jury is still out on the law's long-term effects.
Last week during his Conservative Political Action Conference speech, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., went as far as saying that the revamped lunch program gives kids "a full stomach—and an empty soul."
Around 11 am, four hours into his daily shift, DeGiovanni and his assistant place meals inside insulation boxes before they're personally handed over to their hungry recipients. Loading the boxes onto a repurposed U-Haul truck, the chef says the effects of healthy eating at a young age are quantifiable. "The United States spends more money than any other nation on education—even more than Switzerland," he says.
He brings up the less than stellar ranking of the US among 65 countries tallied in the Program for International Student Assessment tests. "There is one correlation—and it's not money—that equals education output, and that's health."
Inside Rio Grande's Gilbert Hall, DeGiovanni hustles to get trays ready for his hungry patrons.
Sue Steinman, a teacher there for over 20 years, is quick to sing the chef's praises. "I know the value of MyPlate and Marc does it," she says. "Kids are eager to get their lunch…they're loving it."