At a time when consumers want their fresh bread baked without "yoga mat" chemicals, a new healthy option is emerging in the school lunch business.
WT Cafe, being launched in Naperville by Mimi and Matt Tolkin of Lombard, is offering private schools and summer camps the ability to sell midday meals that include fresh fruits, vegetable-infused sauces, whole grains and an overall emphasis on nutrition.
The business will contract with schools to deliver meals to kids whose parents order them online for $4 to $6 each, allowing schools to focus on teaching and the Tolkins to focus on healthy food.
"It's also part of our mission to educate kids on what they're eating," Matt said.
That's why the business is a perfect fit for the Tolkins -- Mimi, a 41-year-old former teacher, and Matt, 45, a food service professional for 20 years.
The Tolkins have four children, "one of whom won't eat anything that looks remotely healthy," Mimi said. So they had built-in taste-testers when they bought a franchise of the Florida-based WT Cafe.
The business started in 2007 as a baby food company but expanded to offer alternative school lunches with a focus on health. The name stands for "Wholesome Tummies," but the Tolkins plan to stick with the nickname.
"We go by WT Cafe," Matt said. "Wholesome Tummies has a little bit of a giggle factor."
But improving the health of student lunches is serious work, the Tolkins say.
WT Cafe lunches are made from scratch, using roughly 90 menus Matt and a chef are perfecting. Meals have no high-fructose corn syrup, no MSG, no artificial flavors or colors and no nuts -- only a peanut butter alternative called sunbutter made from sunflower seeds. The Tolkins say they'll use organic ingredients when they can to make meals such as a teriyaki noodle bowl, whole-grain spaghetti and meatballs or even whole-grain chocolate-chip pancakes.
For picky eaters, chicken tenders and pizza are on the menu, but they come with whole-grain breading and whole-wheat crust. That way the lunches are healthier than usual, but not so healthy that kids won't touch them.
"I would see so much food go in the garbage can or just kids go through the line and make a face," Matt said about his days in the food service industry.
"I'm looking forward to seeing the kids eat it," Mimi said.
Kids in six Wheaton Park District camps this summer could be the first in the area to try lunches from WT Cafe. Summer camps attract roughly 1,000 kids, but lunches never have been offered, said Megan Raitt, preschool and camp manager. This summer, parents can log in and order meals from wtcafe.com if they don't have the time, energy or healthy ingredients to pack a lunch for their camper.
"We're always looking to add healthy alternatives to our camps," Raitt said, especially for those who might have allergies, be vegetarians or need to eat gluten-free. WT Cafe can personalize meals for all those dietary needs, the Tolkins say.
St. Pius X Parish School in Lombard also might offer WT Cafe lunches next school year, said Donna Perlowski, administrative assistant.
"We were very, very impressed with how good the food tastes, how nutritious it is," Perlowski said. "I think that's where people are going now with more of a healthier lunch for their child -- more organic, more fruits and vegetables. I can hear parents saying to their child, 'I packed you all the colors of the rainbow today.'"
WT Cafe is not yet certified through the National School Lunch Program, which allows qualifying students to receive free or reduced-price lunches and sets standards for caloric value and nutritional content of school meals. But the Tolkins are working with the state board of education to gain that certification and eventually offer service to public schools that want a new look in the lunch line.
Interested schools can find out more by emailing email@example.com or calling (630) 785-8495.
At home, Mimi and Matt are working on the taste buds of the family's pickiest eater, who loves the WT Cafe chocolate chip cookies and their sneaky whole wheat, but won't go near the sunbutter since it's not the real deal.
"Our rule," Matt says, "is if we make it, you have to at least try it."