Penny McLaren 0000-00-00 00:00:00
Are you hot for salad bars in schools? Or do they leave you cold? School Nutrition gathers an array of opinions to help you make the right decision for your operation. SNAPSHOT ■ Some are convinced that salad bars are the best way to increase produce consumption among kids. ■ Others are concerned about food safety, food waste and efficiency. ■ Operators need to weigh different factors to determine what works best for their individual sites. THERE’S ONE THING WE CAN ALL AGREE ON: Children need to eat more fruits and vegetables every day, and schools are an ideal environment for making produce choices available to students. But there is some debate when it comes to determining the best way to go about serving fruits and veggies in the school cafeteria. For many, the customizable, serve-yourself, all-you-can-pileon salad bar is the answer. But for others, a school cafeteria salad bar is nothing but a source of angst and anxiety. Salad bars in schools aren’t a new concept, but they certainly got a boost when First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” initiative to end childhood obesity inspired the formation of a coalition, Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools. The group announced a goal to donate 6,000 salad bars to schools by 2013. More than 1,200 salad bars have been donated already, and more are on the way as funding is secured. (Founding partners in the coalition include the National Fruit & Vegetable Alliance and the United Fresh Produce Association.) Salad bars also have been championed by many others advocating for changes in school meals, from parent groups to celebrity chefs. But not everyone is a fan, in large part because of food safety-related concerns. Indeed, the promotion of salad bars in schools took a beating a few years ago when the National Science Foundation (NSF) issued recommended guidelines advising against the use of conventional, self-serve salad bars at the elementary school level. While NSF is not an organization with regulatory authority, many hold its recommendations in high regard, with some state and local health departments (and foodservice operations) establishing rules and standards around its guidance. While the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has issued no specific rulings or guidance regarding the restriction or limitation of self-serve salad bars in schools, many school nutrition directors have called upon the federal agency to take a definitive stand. What’s the answer? Is there an answer? School Nutrition spoke with school nutrition directors around the country who hold a wide array of passionate opinions about the effectiveness of salad bars in schools. All of their positions are legitimate—right for their districts and right for their communities. We offer the following debate to help you understand how some of your peers have come to their own conclusions about this controversial issue, and showcase different points of view to help you make the decisions that are appropriate for your own sites. RAISE THE (SALAD) BAR Practice Makes Perfect The first thing you have to know about Jessica Shelly, MBA, REHS (Registered Environmental Health Specialist), is that she was a health inspector before her current position as school nutrition director for Cincinnati Public Schools. Shelly knows food safety. And she is pro salad bar. When Shelly took over the top school nutrition spot in Cincinnati in 2010, she set a goal to have a salad bar in each of the district’s 53 schools. She achieved that goal in a little over a year; the first salad bar was installed in April 2010, the last, in August 2011. “It went really quick,” reports Shelly. “We started out with one salad bar. At first, the principals said, ‘No, don’t put it in my school, it is too much work.’” But when they saw how well the initial salad bars were working out, says Shelly, the principals were clamoring to be next in line. The school nutrition department obtained all the equipment at no charge, through grants and donations: Chiquita provided three salad bars; four came from United Fresh Produce; Whole Foods donated 10; the American Dairy Association contributed 24; a local university supplied two; and so on. “They saw the link to getting children to eat more fruits and vegetables, and were happy to invest, because it was in their best interests,” says Shelly of the donors. All she had to do was ask. “The worst thing that somebody could do was say ‘no,’” she remarks. Shelly admits she gets a lot of questions related to ensuring food safety. And this is where her previous career as a health inspector comes in handy. It starts with ensuring that her customers understand their responsibilities for food safety. “It takes planning,” she says. “I actually started with the elementary schools, because we wanted them familiar with it from the start.” Whole Foods helped by bringing in an 8-ft.-long traveling salad bar for Shelly and her team to use as a demonstration. Kids are given the opportunity to go through the line and learn to take only what they can eat. They try out the tongs. Shelly even uses an instructional video, which students love, she says, because it shows the teachers doing everything “wrong” when using the salad bar, while highlighting the kids doing everything the right way—and reinforcing proper procedures. Shelly also planned carefully about where the salad bar would be located at each site. “I had to stop and think of where it could fit,” she explains. In the majority of the district’s schools, the bar is placed after the point of sale, so children don’t hold up the line at the cashier station. Shelly’s food safety salad bar advice to other school nutrition professionals follows: ■ Use shorter size bars that are at an age-appropriate height. ■ Use 13-in.-long tongs. ■ Task staff with straightening and wiping down the bar after every group or lunch period. ■ Use smaller quarter-pans to minimize waste. ■ Keep salad bars in view of the manager or cashier or other assigned staff. ■ Make hand sanitizer available. Yes, all self-service must be monitored, Shelly affirms, noting that when the health department heard she was installing salad bars, she got some initial push back. “I told them they had to see it. When they did, they said, ‘You have it under control.’” Facilitating Choice Before installing salad bars, Shelly noticed that many students on the line were torn between taking a hot meal or a salad. “It was heartbreaking to see them when they didn’t know what to do,” she recounts. “Now, if they really want salad, then they can have it—and they really want it.” In Cincinnati, the salad bar is stocked only with vegetables, no fruits. (Two or three fruits are offered on the line, separately, as part of the reimbursable meal.) Children can create a reimbursable meal without the salad bar. On the other hand, students can select a deli plate that features deli meat, cheese and crackers, and they are invited to add vegetables from the salad bar. Shelly asserts that the salad bars reduce labor costs in her school kitchens. “We are saving a half-hour to an hour each day,” she estimates. “Participation is up 9%, but the labor time is the same, so we’re being more efficient.” This allows her team more time to prep a greater number of entrées, as well as more time for breakfast preparation. What’s more, the commitment to cafeteria salad bars has earned them good marks from parents. “We’ve had positive press,” Shelly reports, with pride. TOSS THE SALAD (BAR) Rewards Not Worth the Risk Cindy Marion, director of child nutrition, Stokes County (N.C.) Schools, dismisses salad bars as a fad of the Eighties. And the Eighties, she notes, are over. But her opposition to salad bar service at school sites is based in pragmatism: The risks she would take in terms of cost, nutritional value and food safety outweigh the returns. “When I came to the department, I moved away from salad bars,” recounts Marion. “They are not cost effective.” She also questioned how well they worked in delivering nutrition. “I was seeing many kids going away from the salad bar with what is not a reimbursable meal. They had bacon bits and cheese, and didn’t really take what we see as being a healthy salad. They want the toppings, and sometimes that is all,” she laments. Today, Marion and her team offer pre-made salads in clear containers. Local, in-season produce offers students a balanced nutritional value, notes Marion. And, “If we put in bacon bits, it is added as a condiment and we make sure everything fits the meal pattern,” she explains. To ensure customers don’t get bored, different salad combinations are rotated in and out of the menu mix. Overall, the pre-made salads are more successful than the salad bar, and Marion can cite participation statistics to back her up. In its hey-day, the operation might have served 50 to 60 students at the salad bar, but now it serves 100 salads (or more) each day at the district’s secondary schools, plus the larger elementary schools. For Marion, the pre-made solution is a better vehicle to deliver nutrition, is more affordable and is less wasteful than a salad bar. “The students get a healthy balanced meal,” she says, “that is age-appropriate and nutritionappropriate.” She can’t guarantee such success with a salad bar: “Let’s be honest with ourselves. [The kids just take] meat and pickles. We are the adults; we have to watch out for the kids.” Hassles & Headaches Most important to Marion, the position of the local health department is the greatest deterrent to use of self-serve salad bars in her operation. “Our health department says they are high risk,” she reports. “We moved away from them because they did not want us to have self-service. We don’t have the money anymore to monitor [the salad bars], and the health department doesn’t want to see them. They do not want us to have them. It is a no-no. They don’t want self-service in the schools.” She understands this position. “We have to deal with public perception,” Marion points out. “When you have a flu outbreak, people immediately panic. Teachers think the students will catch the flu from the utensils. They forget all the other ways students [in school] could be exposed to the flu.” But she knows that perception is reality and thus, “We have to be more guarded.” Concerns about physical contamination also are top of mind. “Like it or not, they’re kids,” Marion continues. “You have to supervise them—middle school students especially. We have had to get chewing gum out of ice machines. That’s why the health department doesn’t like it, because children will be children. The result actually can be very harmful. One incident and you are in the paper.” According to Marion, advocates who promote free salad bars—including politicians in her state—“are not helping us. It’s a path we’ve already been down, and we don’t want to go back. Send us money to buy more fruits and vegetables on the serving line, where monitoring is available.” More money for nutrition education also would be preferable to salad bars, in her opinion. RAISE THE (SALAD) BAR First Place Count Rodney Taylor, director of nutrition services, Riverside (Calif.) Unified School District, among the serious proponents of salad bars in schools. “Salad bars? There are no cons,” Taylor asserts. He’s had salad bars in all of his district’s elementary schools for several years, and they are an important element in his vision for the next generation. “I wanted to take a five-year-old and make eating fruits and vegetables a lifetime healthy eating habit,” he explains. Taylor and his team have introduced a service model they call Salad Bar First. And that is exactly what elementary students do: They stop at the salad bar first—which features a colorful array of fresh fruits and vegetables, most of which is procured from local farmers—before picking up other menu items. This means Riverside students get to have their salad and their pizza, too. “Principals swear the students are eating more fruits and vegetables,” reports Taylor. As much as Taylor is an advocate for school salad bars, he doesn’t believe they belong in every site in his district. “I have no intentions of putting salad bars in middle schools,” he notes, explaining, “They are the worst eaters, and the most undisciplined.” The same thing goes for high schools, where he has witnessed salad bar “abuse” by students—and by teachers! “They will try to make two meals out of one. It is awkward and embarrassing for everyone,” he reports. Instead, with the help of a chef he hired to improve school menus, his team prepares specialty salads from locally grown produce and USDA Foods, such as a mandarin orange salad that also uses fajita meat, or a non-traditional chipotle dressing. By the Numbers Taylor can point to the results of a recent study to support his claim that his salad bars are an effective feature of the school meals operation. He partnered with University of Northern California to do a two-year study on the impact of salad bars. The results showed that the financial impact was neutral, while kids were, in fact, eating more fruits and vegetables. And department accounts back up the financial impact findings. When Taylor stepped into this position in 2002, the school nutrition operation owed the district $3.1 million. Nonetheless, he pushed for a $10,000 investment at each site to implement salad bar service. “They laughed,” he recounts. “I wanted to change the perception of the program, and the salad bar was the vehicle to get the parents to gain confidence in [what we were offering].” It worked. Participation ballooned from 47% then to 70% today. Financially, the operation returned 12% to the bottom line and made $1 million a year over a seven-year period. The debt to the district was paid off, and the school meals operation now enjoys a $5.7 million surplus. Taylor attributes much of this success to the addition of the salad bars. “Many said [salad bars] would cost us more to run,” he notes. “Actually, it is the exact opposite. We reduced waste.” Taylor’s “secret” is balance. “For 21 years, I ordered peas knowing that the kids would not eat them. How smart is that? I served them knowing that they’d go in the trash,” he laments. But today, by offering a variety of produce, “We are not forcing students to eat, but giving them choices.” Taylor concedes that serving more produce requires more prep work on the part of his school nutrition staff. For example, they have to cut apples and oranges, because, he says, “Third-graders don’t have teeth to bite into apples, and kindergartners can’t peel an orange.” Still, his staff is inspired to work harder and make healthier eating a priority for kids. “We are successful, because the staff has learned to express love though work,” notes Taylor. “What wouldn’t you do for your child?” he asks them. “If you knew your kids were at risk, you know you would do anything for them. We have an awesome responsibility. It’s a labor of love.” TOSS THE SALAD (BAR) Watching the Clock There are students, lots and lots of students, going through the lunch lines in Lee’s Summit (Mo.) School District. And they just keep coming. “Like at many school districts, we’ve had to battle with secondary school principals about the number of students [required to be served] in a single lunch period,” notes Jane Hentzler, MS, RD, SNS, director of foodservice. Over the years, Hentzler has tried offering salad bar service, only to find that students simply don’t have time to customize their lunch at a salad bar, especially when given a scant 23 minutes for the entire lunch period. According to Hentzler, a typical secondary school cafeteria scatter system is designed to accommodate 200 to 300 students at one time. Today, that system is at its limit, trying to serve 500+ kids, moving them through the line and out to dine in seven to ten minutes. Since self-service takes longer, “Students would rather have the salad prepared for them,” reports Hentzler. “They want to get through the line and have more time to eat.” But there were other factors that pushed Hentzler and her team away from salad bars and other types of self-service. Among these was customer abuse similar to that described by Rodney Taylor of his secondary schools: “There would be two or three students eating off of one plate,” Hentzler recounts. “That’s when we went to [a charge-by-theounce system].” And as time has gone along, secondary school students now are offered specialty salads: Southwest, Asian, grilled chicken, breaded chicken, plus chef salad with cheese and ham or cheese and turkey. According to Hentzler, these interesting selections have proven popular and preferable. Last fall, the school nutrition team introduced a tiered salad in the district’s elementary schools, including an additional salad entrée choice available at a higher price. One example is a grilled chicken salad consisting of a cup of lettuce and cup of spinach, one-quarter cup carrots, one-quarter cup cauliflower and broccoli, 2 ounces grilled chicken and 1 ounce shredded cheddar cheese. It is packaged in a 5x5-in. clamshell, with a wholegrain graham cracker packet taped on top and offered as a reimbursable meal. Although the interest was strong at first for the tiered salad, as cold weather set in, salad consumption went down. By Christmas break, Hentzler reports they had to suspend the salad entrée choice in elementary schools due to low student participation. She and her team continue to seek other creative ways to offer fruits and vegetables to students, without resorting to a salad bar. Even advocates of school salad bars sometimes hesitate when it comes to adding them to middle and high schools, concerned about abuse, cost and time. Specialty salad offerings might be a better way to go for this age group. Lettuce All Agree How about you? Are you hot or cold to the idea of salad bar service in your school cafeterias? Certainly, the general public tends to view salad bars as the definitive solution to promoting increased produce consumption among students. Many school nutrition directors agree. Others don’t. But a hallmark of the K-12 school nutrition business is that there is no one right strategy, approach, menu mix or service method that works in all districts—or even all school sites within a district. The box above summarizes a few of the different factors that come into play when deciding if a cafeteria salad bar is the right answer for increasing fruit/veggie consumption—and school meal program participation. Whatever you decide, there is one other thing everyone should be able to agree on: To respect every path that is taken thoughtfully and in keeping with our shared goal to nourish and nurture our nation’s school children. Penny McLaren is a freelance writer based in Vancouver, Wash., and a former editor of this publication. Photography by Monkey Business, istockphoto/jiunlimited.com and Rick Brady. Open Bar or Bar None? Trying to determine if a cafeteria salad bar is the right option for your operation? Consider the following factors in making your decision: Age of Students. Can they be taught how to use a salad bar properly and relied upon to do so? Enrollment & Time for Lunch. How many students must be served in how much time? Can you afford the time that it takes each student customer to build a salad? Menu Mix. What items do you want to make available on the salad bar? Will it be a mixture of hot and cold items? Will you offer proteins? Condiments? How many different vegetables and/or fruits do you want to make available? Is the goal to allow students simply to self-select a greater array of produce as side dishes, or do you intend for them to literally create a salad? Labor. Do you have staff (or volunteers) who can monitor the salad bar area to ensure it is kept clean and free of physical contaminants? Is there ample supervision to ensure that questions can be answered or assistance provided? Is staff available to follow food safety procedures for the salad bar throughout meal service? What are your labor requirements for food prep for a salad bar? What are your labor requirements for food prep for some alternative, such as pre-packaged salads or single-serve portions of individual fruits and vegetables? Equipment. Can you get the right equipment for your school? For example, if equipment is being donated, will it be the right height for elementary students? Does it have features you need for food safety, mobility, accessibility and the menu mix? Can you afford the equipment if you are unable to qualify for a donation or grant? Placement. Have you given due consideration to the best place for a salad bar at each site? Is there sufficient space for easy and efficient accessibility by students without holding up the line? Can it be monitored by staff who also are managing other responsibilities? Does it make sense to place near the serving line or in the dining area? Community Support/Pressure. Are stakeholders in the school community supportive of your decision? Will the principal, site manager, custodian and cafeteria monitors support implementation of salad-bar service? How about your local health inspector? Conversely, do your current efforts to menu more fruits and vegetables meet with approval, or are parents or advocates pressuring you to offer a salad bar? Local Regulations. Some state and local health departments follow NSF protocols and recommendations regarding salad bar use in K-12 settings. Check to see if there are regulations restricting their use in your community. Also, make sure that equipment manufacturers know what is “policy” and what is “recommended.”
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