A Salad Bar in Every School?

A Salad Bar in Every School?

The First Lady's initiative launches a debate on the pros and cons of salad bars in elementary school environments.

Late last month, First Lady Michelle Obama announced her “Let's Move Salad Bars to Schools” campaign. The initiative plans to put 6,000 salad bars in school lunchrooms to encourage the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables among youngsters.

However, while no one doubts the benefits of fresh produce, some question having bins of fresh food products placed where very young children can pick them, possibly posing a food safety risk? Others wonder whether salad bars are too difficult to monitor for reimbursable meal compliance in a hectic, time-condensed school lunch period?

Directors who have salad bars in their elementary schools say these issues are real but manageable and with some modifications, extra vigilance and basic education, even the smallest children can navigate salad bars effectively.

St. Paul (MN) Public Schools elementary schools uses smaller salad bar pans that are replaced more frequently to minimize any mess. They also replace utensils frequently, provide hand sanitizers at the beginning of the line and use squeeze bottles for dressings to prevent the spillage mess ladling inevitably causes.

It's not perfectly mess-free, admits Jean Ronnei, SPPS's director of nutrition & commercial services, but very manageable and worth the effort.

“I think there is something very important in letting kids choose for themselves,” she says. “And with some sound food safety practices, we're just fine.”

Burlington (VT) Schools has salad bars even for kindergardeners and “I see them as an opportunity, not a problem,”says Food Service Director Doug Davis. To smooth the way, Davis brings salad bar units into classrooms at the start of the year so students can learn about using them, as well as about issues like portioning and good sanitation practices.

Nor does USDA-mandated component counting slow things down much.

“The first day of school or the first couple days, yeah, it's probably slower, but in general, it's not,” Davis says. At Burlington, the salad bar is included with every meal, so most students already satisfy the minimum three of five components with their plated hot lunch with milk, making the salad bar an add-on, reducing the monitoring burden.

The two-school Hayden (CO) School District purchased a salad bar for its elementary school only recently. And the results to date? Encouraging, says Foodservice Director Steve Carlson.

“We have a couple monitors in the lunchroom to help the kids make their choices,” he says. “There was a learning curve in the first couple weeks when we had to make sure they didn't just take a whole trayful of pickles and nothing else. But they soon got the hang of it.”

Carlson says the salad bar includes enough components for a reimbursable meal, but monitoring hasn't been an issue since only some of the students opt for it, with many choosing the hot lunch instead.