All 14 high schools in the Cobb County School District in Georgia added made-to-order salad bars called Creation Stations last fall after piloting the concept in several sites last spring. The concept allows students to customize an entrée salad with a choice from among at least three proteins and over a dozen vegetables.
The stations replaced grab-and-go sections of the serveries, where students formerly got pre-packaged entrée salads. Creation Station joins other to-order stations such as the deli and the World Fare rotating international cuisine stands.
“This is just another way to give them an opportunity to customize,” says Emily Hanlin, executive director of food & nutrition services. “We had gotten some requests and interest from both parents and students to have this kind of concept, which is what led us to testing it.”
Customization is one of the hottest current trends in K-12 foodservice, according to the School Nutrition Association.
The options on the bar don’t change much, with variances deriving from the seasonality of the vegetables, a good portion of which are sourced locally. They reflect past experience with student preferences, such as with the bar’s popular Tex-Mex roasted chickpea option, which helps draw vegetarian diners and had already been a hit before the Creation Station concept made its debut.
Other popular protein options on the stations include breaded chicken, which comes in regular or Buffalo flavored versions, as well as standards like turkey and ham.
With the protein component, which is served in two-ounce portions, plus the grain in the flatbread that accompanies each salad and the unlimited vegetables, the salads constitute a reimbursable school meal under federal school lunch regulations while also offering a high level of customer appeal.
The stations are staff-serve, not self-serve, which helps control portioning, minimizes mess and reduces waste.
The Creation Stations vary in popularity by school, Hanlin says, but they are never the lowest choices among the half-dozen station options Cobb County high schools offer at lunchtime, which also include grill and pizza lines along with the salad, deli and international stations.
“We have heard that [some students] had previously been bringing in food from home, and this led them to have a solid option at lunch because while the other choices didn’t speak to them, the Creation Station did,” offers William Snead, assistant director of the food & nutrition services department. The stations have coincided with a small bump in lunch participation numbers, Hanlin adds.
Snead says the stations also allow more use of local products like fresh produce.
“I know using fresh locally grown produce is a trend in restaurants and it’s something that naturally went with the Creation Station because it’s a great way to feature our locally grown produce and also get an education [value] out of it,” he says.
The idea was originally implemented before Hanlin took over direction of the department last fall but she was familiar with its development.
“I know it was a combination of things that led to it, like looking at trends in the marketplace and talking to students,” she says. “We also have some very active parents and this was one of the things they had been asking for to implement in the high schools. In fact, they now want me to look at putting it in the middle school level too.”
She says that latter possibility is on her radar but will have to deal with some infrastructure issues at the middle school sites.
At the high schools, equipment changes required to put the Creation Stations in were minimal as the grab-and-go stations they replaced already had cold wells, so whatever investment had to be made was confined primarily to smallware items to set up the line. Staff training requirements were also minimal as these weren’t the first to-order concepts the district has deployed.