Guest Blog from Chef Ann, the Renegade Lunch Lady: Salad Bars—Not Just for Restaurants

A few years ago, a reporter asked me what was the one thing schools could do to improve school lunch. I said, “Start a salad bar program.” It’s a great way to provide children with daily access to delicious fresh fruits and vegetables.

In 2010, my nonprofit Food Family Farming Foundation (F3) teamed up with Whole Foods Market to create the Great American Salad Bar Project. The goal was to provide free salad bars to school districts. As we worked to make this happen, I encountered a lot of naysayers:

“Children won’t eat vegetables!”

“The kids will contaminate the food!”

“It’s too expensive!”

“It’ll be a big mess!”

The truth is that a salad bar is an easy, fun way to help children learn to love fresh fruits and vegetables. A child’s palette develops as she grows, and she can develop a taste for fresh corn and crispy lettuce as easily as she can for corn chips and crispy treats. Salad bars are also cost-effective solutions that fulfill the USDA’s new guidelines for increased fresh produce.

That first year we provided 564 salad bars to schools, and the project grew into Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools, which is affiliated with Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” initiative. Together with our partners – the Whole Kids Foundation, the United Fresh Foundation, and the National Fruit and Vegetable Alliance – we have provided 2,380 schools with salad bars. 

The response has drowned out the naysayers:

I was initially concerned that we would have to persuade kids to take fresh fruits and vegetables from the bar, but we’ve actually had to do the opposite;For example, when we saw a girl walking away with 1 ½ pints of cherry tomatoes, we had to assure her that the salad bar was here to stay. If she really liked cherry tomatoes, we told her, she could have some more another day.

-Brian Giles, Director of Food Services, Houston Independent School District, TX

We have been able to use the salad bars as an educational tool to expose students to vegetables that they may not be used to seeing at home on a regular basis. We have been pleasantly surprised to see an increase in consumption of certain vegetables that you might not think would be kid favorites, such as chickpeas, spinach, and beets.

- Sarah Maver, RN, School Wellness Dietician, New Have Public Schools, CT

Many of our students live in "food deserts" where there is not access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Our salad bar gives these students the opportunity to have fresh produce -- such as romaine lettuce, grape tomatoes, sugar snap peas, kiwis, and globe grapes -- every day.  After adding salad bars to every school, we have not only seen an improvement in our students' overall physical health (BMIs in Cincinnati Public Schools have been decreasing each year), but we have also seen an improvement in our students' attitudes about school lunch.  

- Jessica Shelly, Food Services Director, Cincinnati Public Schools, OH

This year, Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools and the Whole Kids Foundation is embarking on Salad Bar Nation, a campaign to provide 2013 schools with salad bars. School districts that would like to receive a salad bar grant can apply here.

F3 also helps schools with our The Lunch Box Salad Bar Guide. The guide help schools with operations, such as logistics and purchasing, and it shows how to promote salad bars through “Rainbow Days” and taste tests.

The guide, along with other salad bar resources, is available on F3’s free online site The Lunch Box – Healthy Tools for All Schools. There is no reason why every school in the country can’t have a salad bar. And all of us at F3 won’t stop until we make that happen!

Chef Ann Cooper, aka “The Renegade Lunch Lady,” has worked in school food for over 15 years. Currently the director of nutrition services at Boulder Valley School District in Colorado, she is also the president and founder of the Food Family Farming Foundation (F3). You can connect with Chef Ann at her website www.chefann.com.

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