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Making It
You Get The Kids Off To School, She'll Pack Lunch

By Katherine Shaver
Sunday, February 17, 2008

For all you busy parents tired of preparing your children's school lunches, Monica Tomasso has a pitch: Let her do it for you.

Her Falls Church company, Health e-Lunch Kids Inc., allows parents and children to order low-sugar, low-fat and preservative-free boxed lunches online and have them delivered to school for $5 or $6 apiece.

Most of her customers are dual-income, time-starved parents who "can't seem to make a completely healthy lunch every single day without going to the grocery store every five minutes," says Monica, 34.

She says she thought of the idea in 2005, while working at ExxonMobil in Fairfax, where she'd spent 13 years in marketing, financial analysis and business development. She doesn't have children but heard colleagues complain about the daily duty. Having dealt with low self-esteem as an overweight child, Monica says, she cringed upon hearing parents acknowledge that they often resorted to unhealthy foods out of convenience.

Looking to leave the corporate world, she used her business background, self-taught nutrition know-how and some financial help from her father to create Health e-Lunch Kids. She left ExxonMobil in the spring of 2006, after her pilot program took off with several Northern Virginia day camps and 25 schools signed up for the next September.

Employees of a Springfield catering company prepare the meals each evening, and a courier service delivers them the next morning. Popular menu items include baked chicken nuggets, bagel pizzas and quesadillas. Meals come with bottled water, sliced fruit or vegetables, and often containers of sauces for dipping.

"We know when we put these in," Monica says, holding up a small tub of fat-free ranch dressing, "that they'll eat their vegetables."

And, yes, even a healthy lunch gets a sweet, if low-sugar, ending, such as a shortbread biscuit. "The idea is [teaching] portion control, but we fill the sweet tooth," she says.

The company typically delivers about 400 meals to 15 to 25 schools each weekday, she says. About 40 private schools and camps across the region, most without cafeterias, and one public elementary school in Northwest Washington have agreed to allow meals to be delivered via the front office to students whose parents order them. Most public school systems, including those in Fairfax and Montgomery counties, have rejected the idea, she says, because they say her company would siphon off cafeteria business.

At the British School in the District, about one-tenth of the 300 students receive Health e-Lunch Kids meals, says Marie-Elaine Carroll, vice principal of the elementary level. Packing lunches every day was "getting to be a bit much" for some parents, especially those with several children, Carroll says. The school has no kitchen or cafeteria.

"It took such pressure off parents that their child was going to have a lunch, and that it was going to be a healthy lunch," Carroll says.

In its first 16 months, the company earned close to $400,000 in revenue, Monica says. She says it makes about 25 percent profit per meal, after delivery costs. She says her salary "pays my mortgage, and that's about it." The rest of the profits go into growing the business.

Monica says she plans to expand to other cities, such as Philadelphia and Boston. They have plenty of private schools and, no doubt, busy parents ready to punt on packing lunch.

Have you found a fun, interesting or healthy way to make a living? Contact Katherine Shaver at shaverk@washpost.com.

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