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Change is on the menu

Wholesome Tummies tackles childhood obesity by offering nutritious options to schools

Every day there’s a surprise waiting at the end of the lunch line for Promise Land Academy first-grader Jada King. When it’s her turn, 6-year-old Jada doesn’t receive a lunch tray, but a small, white box adorned with a brightly colored logo.

Will it contain a lo mein noodle bowl, spaghetti and meatballs, or maybe all-natural chicken tenders? Jada tears open the box to find a fresh, healthy meal, made personally for her.

Thanks to Wholesome Tummies, a new innovative healthy school lunch business, midday meals have become more interesting and appetizing for Jada and children at four area schools. Wholesome Tummies creates foods that cajole picky eaters to make healthy food choices.

Parents order the meals through an online system and lunches are delivered directly to local schools including Promise Land Academy in Jacksonville, and Grace Episcopal Day School, High Point Christian Academy, and The Broach School — all in Orange Park.

The Wholesome Tummies service is getting traction having just contracted with San Pablo Elementary, the health and fitness magnet elementary school in Duval County. The company will be providing healthy snacks for an estimated 300 children who participate in San Pablo’s after-school fitness program. Students will fuel up on wholesome snacks, such as organic baby carrots with hummus, before or after enjoying tennis, gymnastics, Zumba, dance, and swimming activities. More schools are expressing interest in providing Wholesome Tummies as a lunch option.

For parents like Jada’s mother, Casey King, Wholesome Tummies offers convenience she feels good about.

“I’m extremely busy, and mornings can be tough. With Wholesome Tummies, I don’t have to worry about packing a lunch. I know that Jada will have a healthy, tasty lunch,” King says. “Jada loves the food, and it takes only minutes to order her lunches online. Wholesome Tummies has made healthy food exciting to Jada.”

That’s the kind of validation Wholesome Tummies owners Bradley and Carrie Farnsworth were hoping for when they purchased a Wholesome Tummies franchise in July 2010.

The jump-start

Carrie grew up in Colorado while Brad was raised in Arkansas. Both value an active lifestyle, and share their love of sports with their sons, Jacob, 10, and Zackery, 8. They met in college at Baylor University in Texas where Carrie double-majored in finance and international business, and Brad in environmental studies and business.

Dismayed by the constant marketing of unhealthy foods to children, the couple was immediately interested in learning more about Wholesome Tummies when they discovered the company’s business page on Facebook.

“We noticed how little attention is paid to providing healthy meals for children,” says Brad Farnsworth. “So my wife and I decided to make the move to help change the way parents and school administrators view children’s nutrition.”

The couple secured commercial kitchen space inside First Baptist Church of Mandarin in Jacksonville and launched their operations in October 2010. So far, initial feedback from school administrators, parents, and children has been overwhelmingly positive.

Making healthy easy

Wholesome Tummies only uses fresh, all-natural, or organic ingredients—no trans fats, no high-fructose corn syrup, no nitrates, and no artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives. The menu also offers entirely vegetarian, gluten-free, and dairy-free offerings.

Parents register on the Wholesome Tummies website where they can view different menu options for any given day. They select the meals for their children and pay for them online. The Wholesome Tummies crew prepares all the meals fresh daily and delivers them to the schools hot and ready for lunch.

“We are very concerned about the state of nutrition and health of children. Wholesome Tummies is an efficient and effective way for parents to make sure their kids eat right at school,” Farnsworth says. “Childhood obesity is a major problem and we want to be a part of the solution. We are investing in this business, but also in the health of our community’s children.”

Addressing concerns

Alarming childhood obesity trends have made access to healthy food an important concern for parents and lawmakers alike. Childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years, according to the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, (NCCDPHP), part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In one study, 61 percent of obese children ages 5 through 10 exhibited risk factors for heart disease, and 26 percent had two or more risk factors for the disease. The United States spends as much as $147 billion annually on the direct and indirect costs of obesity, according to the NCCDPHP.

School lunch has been the subject of national attention for lawmakers. The $4.5 billion “Healthy, Hunger-free Kids Act” was signed by President Obama in December after passing unanimously in the Senate and by the House 264-157.

The act eliminates junk food in school lunches, increases reimbursement rates for meals, and makes school lunches available to more children. First Lady Michelle Obama released a statement calling the act, “…a groundbreaking piece of bipartisan legislation that will significantly improve the quality of meals that children receive at school.” The First Lady launched her “Let’s Move” campaign last February to end childhood hunger and fight childhood obesity.

The Farnsworths share the same concerns as other parents.

“Parents and schools everywhere are demanding healthier food choices and Wholesome Tummies offers a much-needed and convenient solution,” Farnsworth says, noting that the couple envisions growing their business over the next five years and expanding into more local public and private schools.

Wholesome Tummies was founded three years ago by two working mothers in Orlando. The Farnsworths became the company’s second franchisees, with the first opening in Tampa. Other Wholesome Tummies franchises were awarded in 2010 in West Palm Beach and St. Petersburg.

Giving food a makeover

Combating the notion that a children’s meal should consist of fries, soda, and chicken nuggets is a challenge. Those associated with Wholesome Tummies know that children can be picky eaters by nature, so Jacksonville chef Ace French gives traditional favorites a healthful makeover.

“We have to introduce healthy food to children to show them that all-natural food can be tasty,” French says.

Take, for instance, macaroni and cheese—the franchise’s best seller. Wholesome Tummies uses whole wheat, high-protein, high-fiber pasta with no preservatives or additives. French uses four all-natural cheeses, and adds a puree of organic carrots and white beans to sneak in extra protein.

The New York style pizza, another favorite, is made with an all-natural pizza crust and fresh marinara sauce that also has pureed vegetables for added nutrition.

French brings more than 25 years of experience to Wholesome Tummies. He has worked as an executive chef at a Marriott resort and Houston’s restaurant, in addition to owning a restaurant and catering business.

“When I heard about the Wholesome Tummies concept, I thought it was a great idea,” French says. “While my children are older and out of school now, I remember being horrified about the school lunch that was available to them when they were in school. I wouldn’t let them eat it.”

A typical day

French arrives to the Wholesome Tummies kitchen around 7:30 a.m. each morning, and begins preparation including cutting up veggies and fruit, making fresh hummus, and mixing yogurt.

“I truly believe that we are food missionaries,” French says. “I’m excited to have the opportunity to share wholesome food with children, and hopefully set them on the path for healthier lives.”

Farnsworth arrives by 8:00 a.m. to help pack anywhere between 50 to 100 lunches. They work until 10:45 a.m., when Farnsworth leaves the kitchen to deliver the hot lunches to the schools. Promise Land Academy serves the meals directly from the kitchen since the school and kitchen exist on the same property. Farnsworth is finished with all deliveries by 12:30 p.m. and sometimes stays to watch the children’s reaction to the food.

“I love to hear them comment about how good the food is,” he says. “I used to do electronic distribution sales and also called upon IT staffing managers who needed contractors, so delivering healthy lunches to children is a very different experience. I feel like we’re really making a difference in educating parents about the importance of natural, healthy food, and making this food available to children.”

The price you pay

The price of a typical Wholesome Tummies meal—$4.50—is more than a typical public school lunch of less than $2.00, but many parents are willing to pay the difference to ensure that their children receive a healthy meal.

“Unhealthy food can lead to so many health problems later,” Farnsworth says. “You can pay for high-quality food now or pay for high healthcare costs later.”

Martha J. Milton, headmaster of Grace Episcopal Day School, agrees.

“Parents are willing to pay more for Wholesome Tummies because they realize the incredible value of what they’re getting,” she says. “Being able to ensure that their children have fresh, healthy, organic food makes them feel good.”

Before Wholesome Tummies, the school—which doesn’t have a kitchen—brought in lunches from eateries such as Subway and Chick-fil-A. Milton wanted to offer healthier options to the parents. Today, Milton estimates that about 40 percent of students at Grace Episcopal eat Wholesome Tummies lunches.

“Wholesome Tummies is so user-friendly, and the quality of the food and service is excellent,” Milton says. “They have been able to provide superior nutritional value, taste, and presentation. The numerous selections keep the children from getting bored, and the parents love it.”

The moms behind Wholesome Tummies

Orlando-based Wholesome Tummies was founded in 2007 by two working mothers, after a Fourth of July pool party.

Samantha Gotlib says that she and Debbie Blacher shared their frustrations about the lack of convenient options for providing healthy lunches for their children.

“As a business owner, I needed the convenience of a school lunch, but I refused to have my kids eat pizza every day,” Gotlib says.

Gotlib and Blacher opened their kitchen in 2008 starting with five private schools. They have since grown their business to preparing thousands of meals each month and delivering them to 20 public and private preschools and elementary schools in Central Florida. The initial success and rapid growth prompted the owners to expand their concept to a much broader scale.

The co-founders launched the franchise option this year to expand their mission to change school meal plans from high-fat and processed foods to more fresh and natural selections. In addition to the existing franchises, several others are under review and with potential to expand nationwide

“We care passionately about children eating foods that are fresh, all-natural, and free from artificial ingredients,” Gotlib says. “Some people may not realize, but we are faced with an epidemic of childhood obesity because poor food choices are the tradition in our nation’s schools. Our mission is to change that.”

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