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Now Is The Moment To Step Up: Industry Races To Place 350 Salad Bars In California Schools

The industry is leading up to a grand crescendo  at the United Fresh Produce Association Convention this May in San Diego.

After giving out salad bars to 43 local schools at the New Orleans convention in 2011 and after Dan’l Mackey Almy, President at DMA Solutions, and Dr. Lorelei DiSogra, Vice President, Nutrition and Health at United Fresh, spearheaded an effort that resulted in the donation of 100 salad bars to Texas schools at the Dallas convention in 2012, industry leadership — specifically our own “Gang of Four,”consisting of Dick Spezzano, Karen Caplan, Lisa McNeece and Margaret D'Arrigo-Martin, seem poised to achieve what once seemed impossible: The donation of 350 salad bars to California schools!

It is not a done deal yet, and Pundit readers have the opportunity to push the effort over the edge by contacting any of the four Chairman or going to the web sites of the Fresh Produce and Floral Council here or United Fresh here.

We are in. The Pundit donated a salad bar to the California effort, which followed up on donations made by both the Eastern Produce Council and Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS, on the occasion of the launch of The New York Produce Show and Conference.

Why are we in? Well, in the interviews below, Karen Caplan, CEO, President at Frieda's Inc., makes the point that the fundraising is built on the "Nobody doesn’t like Sara Lee" concept and, indeed, it seems as if the industry is almost unanimous in supporting the program.

There is a little concern about food safety and salad bars, especially in elementary schools, and we dealt with that subject in a piece titled Every School Needs A Salad Bar AND A Commitment To Operating It Safely, but there are no known incidents and, most likely, the issue is more hygiene than e. coli 0157:H7.

Of course, we want to boost sales and consumption right now, and we want to build a sustainable program to improve public health in years to come.

This movement in California is likely to be a trendsetter, so we decided to devote a whole issue to the Campaign and the broader questions around salad bars. We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, Mira Slott, to find out more by speaking to six leaders of the effort:

Dr. Lorelei DiSogra, Ed.D, R.D., Vice President, Nutrition and Health, United Fresh Produce Association

Dr. Diane Harris, Ph.D., M.P.H., C.H.E.S., Health Scientist, Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Dick Spezzano, President, Spezzano Consulting Service

Karen Caplan, CEO, President, Frieda’s, Inc.

Lisa McNeece, Vice President of Foodservice and Industrial Sales, Grimmway Farms

Margaret D’Arrigo-Martin, Vice President of Community Development, Taylor Farms

Increasing consumption is the goal of the trade and the public health community, and there is a consensus that focusing on children is the most effective way to proceed. So this effort is very important.

Many thanks to our six leaders for being willing to share their thoughts on the subject with the industry.

United’s Lorelei DiSogra Champions The Cause: To Place 350 Salad Bars In California’s Neediest Schools

Dr. Lorelei DiSogra, EdD, R.D.
Vice President, Nutrition and Health
United Fresh Produce Association
Washington, D.C.

Q: How does Let’s Move Salad Bars to California Schools fit within national campaign efforts; and more broadly to United Fresh’s advocacy to effect governmental policy to increase children’s produce consumption?

A: I was out in California recently meeting with foundations for funding. This state campaign is special in its ambitious goals and aggressive team approach and one of the leads under the umbrella of the national Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools initiative. [The California campaign is spearheaded by the United Fresh Foundation and four California produce industry leaders: Karen Caplan, president, CEO, Frieda’s; Margaret D’Arrigo-Martin, vice president of community development, Taylor Farms; Lisa McNeece, vice president of foodservice and industrial sales, Grimmway Farms; and Dick Spezzano, industry retail veteran and president, Spezzano Consulting.]

[Editor’s note, interviews with a CDC official and the four co-chairs follow this piece]

Our board approved the national effort in January 2010, originally called A Salad Bar in Every School, where we were working on amassing major contributions, but most people connect its start to when the First Lady announced Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools in November 2010.

The president was inaugurated in January 2009, and Michelle Obama launched Let’s Move! one year later. Thank God, with President Obama’s reelection, the program will be continued.

Q: How did you capitalize on the momentum of Let’s Move! to get political leverage in the push for school salad bars?

A: United Fresh is three blocks away from the White House. We immediately sent over a meeting request. Tom Stenzel [United Fresh president and CEO] and I went there in the spring and from that discussion, the concept was jumpstarted to do the salad bar school program as part of Let’s Move!

Other groups were also interested in getting salad bars into schools. The White House pulled us all together to consolidate multiple efforts going on. Then months of negotiations and from there a national effort became official to support the First Lady’s Let’s Move! goals to reduce childhood obesity within a generation.

With a new name, Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools, a new logo and graphic, we waited for the First Lady’s schedule to be free to do a big media event, which occurred in November 2010 at a Miami elementary school and all the partners were there; including United Fresh, Whole Foods, and the National Fruit and Vegetable Alliance headed by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

CDC has been very, very engaged in this. We are lucky to have a partner in the federal government that makes this a priority. [See the Q&A with Diane Harris, CDC.]

In May 2010, we were in Las Vegas for our annual convention and the board decided to make the school salad bar campaign a big deal at our next annual convention in New Orleans, with a goal of donating salad bars to every school in New Orleans that wanted one. The board wanted special focus wherever we were having our national convention.

We had a special initiative to raise money for New Orleans, then for our next convention in Dallas, and that led to our California drive for the upcoming convention in San Diego next May. While I was still in Dallas, Dick Spezzano and Karen Caplan came up to me and said, “We want to volunteer as leads for raising money for California.”

Very quickly, more industry leaders in California started to play an active role in raising funds. To date, more than 100 produce companies, retailers and foundations have contributed to Let’s Move Salad Bars to California Schools.


Q: Isn’t the California effort much more ambitious in its scope?

A: In this industry, we have incredible leaders, people in the industry with long tenures, so passionate whether on the retail side or grower shipper side. That describes Dick and Karen who set lofty goals, once they saw some 350 schools in California were still on the waiting list to get salad bars, following some 250 school petitions already satisfied from the national effort.

At a cost of $2,625 per salad bar unit, they were determined to raise the necessary donations for 350 more salad bars by May 15, opening day of our convention. Everything is on track for a big press event to celebrate this milestone. Those attending will include California education, agriculture and public health officials, who have been instrumental in their support of the school salad bar program.

Q: Could you elaborate on state department partnerships and their impact on building sustainable salad bars in schools?

A: At the press event, we will highlight our collaboration with California State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Toriakson, who runs Team California for Healthy Kids, a campaign that promotes healthy eating and physical activity in schools.

The goals for the campaign are to increase access to water and fresh foods, particularly salad bars, and to increase physical activity, especially moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA) throughout the day, every day, in schools and communities. As part of these efforts, the California Department of Education is hosting a series of workshops for school districts throughout the state, titled “Fresh Fruits and Vegetables: A Centerpiece for a Healthy School Environment.” The workshops are linked to increasing fresh fruits and vegetables as a means to meet the new school meal requirements and create healthier school food environments.

Q: Is the inclusion of salad bars in the Team California for Healthy Kids campaign your doing?

A: Unbeknownst to us, Superintendent Toriakson had set a strategy for salad bars in schools. Once we realized the State Department of Education also had this goal, we started to team up with him and work in collaboration with his staff.

When I have staff from the state with me and I go to a foundation for funding, it’s very powerful. Plus, they’re doing training where the child nutrition programs are being operated.

Q: Is training an issue?

A: Some schools just know what to do on their own. But Margaret D’Arrigo-Martin, one of the co-chairs for Let’s Move Salad Bars to California Schools, wanted to offer training to schools that needed it. She’s secured enough funding to donate a salad bar to every school in Monterey. She’s been a liaison for public/private partnerships, and state representatives and grower/shippers are teaming up to do the training.

Margaret is wonderful, doing all her work on behalf of Taylor Farms and the Grower Shipper Association Foundation. She’s met with the Superintendent and other government executives in California, who are really playing leadership roles.

Q: How does the California work coordinate back to the White House and Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiatives nationwide?

A: We have periodic meetings at the White House. It’s very good to have the First Lady for the next four years talking about the importance of kids eating fruits and vegetables. For everybody in the industry who wants to see produce consumption go up this, is a good thing.

Q: How is the selection prioritized for which schools get donated salad bars? Is there high demand?

A: The Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools program must be viewed in a larger context. The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Snack Program provides free meals to low income schools. To receive a salad bar, there is an application schools have to fill out, which they can retrieve on the Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools website, get the necessary signatures, etc. One question is about poverty level and free or reduced-cost lunches. When donation money comes in, that’s one of the priorities.

Many private schools are part of the national school lunch program, and they can apply if they meet federal requirements.

We have a huge waiting list, not just in California. Nationwide we have 1,500 to 1,600 schools in line; they’ve applied and their applications have been approved. They’re just waiting for donations. We’ve got a big demand.

Q: Is the cost of the salad bars consistent? Do different states and school districts have varying requirements for the type of salad bar they can operate?

A: We have two different salad bars we make available. We have contracts with two manufacturers for more than two years. We did due diligence on companies that make salad bars. The one most schools want is a non electric salad bar by Cambro, which costs $2,625 per unit. It’s made in California and all California schools want it. The fact that it creates jobs is helpful if talking to a California-based foundation for donations.

Some schools want or need an electric salad bar that provides refrigeration capabilities, but the price differential is quite big. Our contract for the electric model is with Vollrath. We donate those to schools in New York City, Washington D.C., and some other school districts around the country, which may require the electric model to meet health and food safety regulations, for example.

Over the past two-and-half years, we’ve donated salad bars to New York City, even though we know it will be expensive. NYC set a goal maybe three years ago to get a salad bar in every school. NYC is the largest school district in the U.S. And with salad bars in more than 1600 schools, it is really close; only about 100 or so left to go.

We’ve donated some, but NYC also has stimulus money for salad bars. Mayor Bloomberg has done a lot in this regard. Whole Foods is one of the partners, and last August, the retailer tied a new store opening on 57 Street to the Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools; donating 57 electric salad bars to NYC schools at a cost of $300,000.

Q: Have you worked to get other retailers on board?

A: We’ve been trying to get other retailers involved. Publix did a great campaign last fall and Harris Teeter last summer to give you some examples. Retailers are on the task force and we’re constantly trying to engage them.

This is a living, breathing, dynamic campaign with constant fundraising going on.

Currently, we’ve surpassed 2,200 salad bars in schools nationwide since fall 2010 when we launched the program with the First Lady.

Whole Kids Foundation, affiliated with Whole Foods, recently launched Salad Bar Nation, a very large fundraising effort.

In January, we had contributions of more than $1.5 million and that resulted in 600 schools receiving salad bars in different school districts around the country. One of those donations was for $1 million anonymously from a private family foundation in Colorado. And with Whole Foods kicking off a big fundraising effort for the national campaign, individual states, including California, will benefit from the promotion. I feel strongly we’re going to reach our goal in California. The California team is high energy and very, very committed to helping kids increase produce consumption.

A couple of weeks ago, we estimated for the national campaign, more than a million kids have been benefiting from salad bars across the country, and that’s a conservative estimate. That’s a number CDC is using as well.

Q: Have you been able to quantify those benefits? For instance, what evidence is there that putting salad bars in schools actually lead to higher produce consumption, not just in school purchases but in consumption, and not just in school but in life? Are there studies to show changes in long term consumption patterns? As it relates to human health, is there evidence that salad bars help alleviate childhood obesity; for instance, are sixth graders in schools with salad bars less obese than in schools without them?

A: Nobody knows the answers to those bigger questions. Unfortunately, that takes very expensive and complex studies, and I don’t see that happening.

Smaller scale, there is already a paper from CDC pointing to the evidence we already have. There’s an evaluation of what’s going on in Arizona schools, which is funded locally. CDC just gave a major evaluation contract to Tulane University in New Orleans to evaluate salad bars in schools.

CDC published a paper last year on what we knew back then.

I wish we had all the answers too. Answering those questions are huge research projects that cost millions and millions of dollars. To assess whether salad bars help in lowering obesity rates, you have to wait for years. That’s a longitudinal study.

Q: Wouldn’t that study also need to consider lots of other variables, such as physical activity, other health issues, diet, lifestyle, etc.?

A: We put research in our grant funding packages, but that kind of research, no one is paying for. It’s so expensive. In a childhood obesity study that CDC published, the government concludes that salad bars work in helping to combat the epidemic.

Dr.Wendy Slusser, medical director, Fit for Healthy Weight Program, UCLA, has another study going on. I call her the mother of salad bar research. She’s what inspired us to get started. She’s done congressional briefings, and we’ve had her speak to our board. Her research has involved measuring change in fruit and vegetable consumption among elementary school children after the introduction of a salad bar program as a lunch menu option in the USDA’s reimbursable lunch program in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Her findings showed a school salad bar increases frequency of fruit and vegetable consumption among children living in low-income households. 

Food safety issues are another concern, and although we’ve never seen a problem, this is another area for further examination.

We’re trying to get more data around benefits in school; does a salad bar increase produce consumption, does it create synergy to other changes?

Q: Could you speak to the relevance of multifaceted programs at schools and connected to families and communities that complement salad bars in building produce consumption?

A: Salad bars are a tiny thing we’re dong among many policy changes. The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program reaches more than 7,000 low income elementary schools with funding benefiting more than 4 million of the lowest income students in getting fresh fruit and vegetable snacks every day.

Salad bars are working within a comprehensive approach to make a big difference in increasing kids’ fresh fruit and vegetable consumption. We have huge demand from schools and a long waiting list of school applications, and we want to thank our donors for making this possible. We want to create more awareness and encourage more corporate donations. Safeway Foundation gave a grant of $26,000 for 10 salad bars, and other retail grants are pending. Grower-shippers have done different collaborations with retailers to secure salad bar donations.

The Safeway donation was important; Produce people opened the door for us to have a meeting with their foundation. These relationships are a big deal. Having four of the top produce leaders in the country, Dick Spezzano, Karen Caplan, Margaret D’Arrigo-Martin and Lisa McNeece co-chair the California initiative gives it clout. Everyone knows them as passionate leaders. We have to write the grant, but they’ve done 90 percent of the work. Look at Karen Caplan’s determination in sending out letters to all Frieda’s vendors for support. And her mom does the follow up calls!

We really believe we’re on a roll. We’ve got this incredible momentum with all the support we’ve acquired in California.

Every one of our donors who has seen their salad bar in schools is blown away. It is important to visit these schools and see the salad bar in action; kids all lined up filling their plates, all the colors and wide varieties of items you’d never think you would see on a salad bar.

It’s nice when they write a check, but we encourage people to follow up and see how their donation is benefiting schools.

Q: From a business standpoint, isn’t this process good for produce companies as well?

A: Produce distributors say that schools are very important to their business and with the addition of salad bars and other changes to the school lunch program, demand for fresh fruits and vegetables continues to increase.

For the 2013 United Fresh Convention in San Diego, schools involved with Let’s Move Salad Bars to California Schools will all be invited; some will bring students. Last year in Dallas, a seven-year-old came with his mom and we asked if he would say a few words about what a salad bar meant to him.

We had a big salad bar set up. It wasn’t long before he was over at the salad bar conducting his own interviews with captivated reporters! We’ve done many media events at salad bar openings around the country telling a really positive story, filled with strong feedback from school officials, foodservice directors and best of all, the children. 

Diane Harris Of The Centers For Disease Control And Prevention Speaks Out On Salad Bars: “Some Answers Won’t Be Entirely Satisfactory, But That’s Where We Are.”

Diane Harris, Ph.D., M.P.H., C.H.E.S.
Health Scientist
Division of Nutrition,
Physical Activity and Obesity

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Atlanta, Georgia

Q: Lorelie DiSogra recommended you as an excellent contact as the CDC lead for Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools. We’re interested to learn more about any research or studies undertaken or in progress to monitor the success of the program as well as validate its expansion. What can you tell us based on the work you’ve done to increase produce consumption in children as a public health imperative to decrease risk of chronic disease and obesity?

A: Some answers won’t be entirely satisfactory, but that’s where we are. We published a report in August 2012 assessing the program as it relates to public health goals.

The best studies done so far are in the Los Angeles school district. Dr. Wendy Slusser, medical director, Fit for Healthy Weight Program, UCLA, is still working with the LA school district cooperatively as they change menus to comply with the new federal school nutrition mandates.

Q: How significant are these new mandates and their impact on schools?

A: This year is really a critical year when talking about school foods with the implementation of new school meal plans, finally. It’s been a long time coming. CDC changed components and increased requirements for the specific fruits and vegetables — the variety as well as the quantity for both breakfast and lunch. The USDA website has lots of information on the details. 

It is important to talk about salad bars in this context. Schools now have the obligation to increase fruits and vegetables, although it doesn’t say necessarily fresh produce.

Q: You’ve brought up a touchy subject in the fresh produce industry, where “frozen” can be viewed as a bad word…

A: From our perspective for public health, you have to be realistic on what’s available and affordable, comparable costs of fresh and frozen. I’ve had some difficulties in the redefining of certain categories in fresh, such as peas and lima beans. Schools also rely heavily on commodity products.

Basically from the school point of view, administrators are juggling entire food budgets and meeting new produce requirements. To get increased reimbursement rates, schools must demonstrate that the new meal patterns meet new guidelines.

Q: What are some of the key changes? The potato industry lobby, for instance, has vehemently opposed the re-categorizing of potatoes and French fries…

A: In the past, French fries were a vegetable. We were getting in trouble, so they were re-defined as starchy vegetables, along with lima beans and peas. It was unsettling for me to see lima beans and peas included, but the reality is there is no deficit of white starchy vegetable intake.

Legumes have gone over to protein. There’s a nice spread sheet showing the before and after. [Editor’s note: see comparisons of previous and current regulatory requirements under the Final Rule Nutrition Standards in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs here.]

Q: Do salad bars generate significant movement toward satisfying those guidelines?

A: If schools offer salad bars, it moves this process along; you achieve automatic variety in the salad bar when looking at hitting all vegetable groups and the different colors and nutritional elements for the menu. It takes care of a range of requirements.

Q: What are the pros and cons schools must consider when deciding whether to implement a salad bar, such as labor, logistics, and food safety issues?

A: Jessica Shelly, foodservice director for the Cincinnati school district, has been a great advocate for salad bars. A couple of years ago, there was not a single salad bar in her schools, but working with Lorelei, she secured funding from six different organizations for 53 salad bars, affecting 34,000 Cincinnati public school students.

She comes from a food safety background and was a food safety inspector. At first blush, she had reservations in bringing self-serve salad bars to schools, but she did research and felt comfortable with the safety considerations. She calculated that it saved costs in labor, and it wasn’t necessary to have prepackage items.

She took steps to maximize the program’s reach and effectiveness by not only using the Cambro equipment we supply, but refurbishing other existing equipment. She also partnered with the National Dairy Council’s program, so her salad bars are also mobile breakfast kiosks serving fruit and other nutritious items to children in their classrooms.

Q: The mobile kiosks sound like they offer flexibility and convenience, but don’t they also come with logistical challenges and labor issues as well?

A: There are some operational issues. For example, where is the unit relative to the point of sale where the cash register is located? The foodservice register is where school administrators monitor the program for low income students.

Q: While there is much anecdotal evidence pointing to the success of salad bars in increasing produce consumption, isn’t it difficult to quantify?

A: The most rigorous research has come from Dr. Sussler’s work in the LA unified school district. An objective of her study was to measure change in fruit and vegetable consumption among elementary-school children after the introduction of a salad bar program as a lunch menu option in the USDA’s reimbursable lunch program.

Her results found a significant increase in the frequency of fruits and vegetables consumed, almost all due to an increase during lunch. Mean energy, cholesterol, saturated fat and total fat intakes were significantly lower in the children after the salad bar was introduced in the schools compared with the intakes in the children beforehand. She looked at third graders in largely low income Hispanic populations. These are kids who may not have as much access to fruits and vegetables at home.

Q: Did the research take into account what the children ate outside of school? And how was the information gathered?

A: She did a 24-hour recall, so kids basically told her what they ate, and she did comparative studies before and after the salad bar was introduced. In her study, she looked at the full diet quality and the change was pretty much accounted for by what they ate at school.

Q: Has the research looked into the staying power of these changed eating habits, monitoring long term consumption patterns?

A: Studies to track children’s eating behaviors over time are expensive and difficult to do. Realistically, I like to think of salad bars as a multipoint plan, when other things also go on to encourage produce consumption, which also complicates the process from a research perspective in isolating the impact of salad bars in particular.

Q: Could you elaborate on that?

A: From CDC’s vantage point, we believe in a comprehensive strategy. The Center of Excellence for Training and Research Translation at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill did an evaluation of the Riverside Unified School District farmer’s market salad bar, which is used in 29 elementary schools there.

Rodney Taylor, director of nutrition services for Riverside Unified School District, is full of passion and a great advocate for kids eating fresh fruits and vegetables. It’s a multifocal program with farm-to-school components and education. The Riverside program focuses on local food and includes hands-on educational activities, harvest of the month, taste tests, etc. It found that students who chose the salad bar ate more servings of fruits and vegetables than students who chose the hot bar.

Q: Is that really surprising? Perhaps those children heading to the salad bar were more health- or diet-conscious. And wouldn’t it be more likely that salad bars by their very nature would carry more fruits and vegetables?

A: The hot bar is main line, so it includes produce items like steamed broccoli. From qualitative work in the field, a lot of times foodservice people were surprised by these results.

I should also mention Whole Kids Foundation, a charitable arm of Whole Foods that focuses on childhood obesity initiatives. Main priorities are school gardens and salad bars and education. A school garden really brings an interactive experience to kids. They get involved in producing food, and they gain more of an appreciation of what good food tastes like. It is important to acculturate children to the taste of fresh produce when they are bombarded by junk food ads.

Q: Fascinating scientific research has been done on the need to intervene at an early age to recondition taste buds before eating behaviors and habits have become engrained… Professor Gabriella Morini of the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy, gave a thought-provoking talk on this topic at the New York Produce Show & Conference last December…

A: I’m interested in preschool programs because the younger, the better. They see produce wrapped in plastic in the supermarket and think that’s where it comes from. Kids really react to interactive experiences and salad bars work in that way.

We don’t have empirical data that kids eat more from salad bars than when produce is prepackaged, but that’s my gut feeling and by talking to kids and school officials. There is a study in San Diego, California, schools that shows when offered more variety, kids will eat more fruits and vegetables.

We really emphasize the idea of choice and having that interactive experience, a full range of varieties and colors, and they love to dip, they love to feel; Even older kids like to have interactive experiences with food.

Q: If children pile their plates with produce, does it necessarily mean they eat it all? There are plenty of anecdotal stories, where children take a bite out of an apple and throw the rest in the garbage…

A: We don’t have a lot of data on waste. We’d like to know if eating from a salad bar results in less waste. Some complaints we’re hearing from the field in certain districts — since kids are required to eat more fruits and vegetables, they are throwing them away. Are these complaints from schools that have salad bars, or don’t provide any other incentives or education? These are questions we’d like to get answered.

I know of several studies happening right now to look at other data that support salad bars, such as promotional support posters on the wall; our partner The Lunch Box has curricular activities, Eat a Rainbow Today, which involves picking colors from the salad bar. It would be nice to know if that does work.

There’s nothing bad about encouraging schools to bring in salad bars and try these activities.

Q: With schools facing budget cuts and limited resources to allocate for different programs, do you find this presents some resistance?

A: There is so much that can be done with little cost. Often you can involve volunteers, parents, other farm-to-school volunteers, and chefs. There is this formal organization, Chefs Move to Schools.

Some school districts are uneasy about having other people in the lunch room for food safety reasons.

Q: Has CDC addressed food safety issues with salad bars?

A: One of the concerns raised frequently with salad bars is whether kids are potentially passing disease from one to another through the salad bar. We don’t have good data on that, but haven’t identified any outbreaks from school salad bars, yet that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened.

We know of the foodborne illness potential carried through produce. There are safety programs in place, GAP certification and HACCP all along the supply chain. Schools have the opportunity to adopt Standard Operating Protocols. Lots of these resources are on the salad bar website.

Someone with eyes on it takes care of it. Food safety measures have been designed into the salad bar equipment. Tongues are long enough so when handled don’t fall in trays. All Cambro units have sneeze guards, and schools will follow a whole set of procedures. Cambro non-electric units hold temperatures for four hours. Cambro did an analysis on that.

There are a few school districts where their local public health departments say they want electrified units. Cost is substantially greater than the units we offer. We can’t get as many, but we do offer electric units to schools in New York City, Washington, D.C., and some schools in Minnesota, and other places, but it’s localized, not widespread.

In New York City particularly, there are a number of school sites that are so old they don’t have the capacity for power in the lunch room, so we face infrastructure issues in selected areas.

Mayor Bloomberg has made it part of his priority to have a salad bar in every school. Bloomberg did an announcement in front of a school salad bar about seeing decreased obesity rates in New York City.

We’re trying to seize the moment. We’re shooting for 4,000 salad bars this year. In the long run, it’s hard to project. We don’t know the sustainability of the program for the future.

Whole Kids Foundation recently launched Salad Bar Nation, and this will be a parallel campaign, raising awareness, a salad a day, working through social media outlets, looking for sponsorship and engagement from celebrities and chefs to promote 2,013 salad bars in 2013.

United Fresh as been great in getting a large number of smaller donations, and it has a powerful California campaign. Whole Foods and United Fresh operate differently, but both have been contributing in a significant way. It’s a lot of work and people invest extensive time that isn’t in their job description.

Q: PMA has also been dedicated to the cause, recently committing $100,000 to support the Let’s Move initiative and the Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools campaign… What is CDC’s role as it relates to financial support for the program?

A: As government employees, CDC is not part of fundraising efforts.

All of the Let’s Move initiatives have some federal agencies attached. We’re unique because so much of Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools is fundraising, but we work from a public health perspective.

We have funded studies and program activities in several different ways. CDC puts out requests for proposals for university work on researching salad bars. In New Orleans, The Prevention Research Center at Tulane University won a cooperative agreement to evaluate the public health impact of salad bars in New Orleans schools. Many of these salad bars were awarded by United Fresh when their conference was there.

We also have a partnership with another association of state and territorial public health and nutrition directors. These are the former 5 A Day coordinators in each state. We have a network in state health departments in each state that focus on health. They all have their own organizations, and we’ve provided funding for mini grant programs. Nine states have been funded with modest amounts of money for workshops, training videos, and documentation to help with food safety guidelines.

The State of Alaska set up a contest to elicit these grassroots videos.

The winning video was taken 30 miles north of the Arctic Circle in a native Alaskan community; first, highlighting the fact that you can do salad bars in a remote area and then showing how much the kids love it. This is an example of great state public health support to help propagate the salad bar message.


Q: What other research is in the pipeline? What are some of the key areas CDC is focusing on?

A: There is very preliminary work, which may be too early to talk about now. One of our concerns is the southeastern states, where there is much less interest from schools in getting salad bars. I can’t tell you exactly why that is, but we’ve tried to figure it out. Those are areas with some of the highest childhood obesity rates and some of lowest rates of kids eating fresh fruits and vegetables.

What are some school-based activities we can do, if it’s not salad bars, what else is there? We’re putting together some state-based teams to strategize action plans and how to implement them. We’ve put in money, and partnered with USDA in their southeast regional office, as well as the School Nutrition Association. We’ve talked conceptually to other organizations, who are interested in participating but this is all still in the planning stages.

These are the kinds of things we’re trying to do to think about schools and what they need. We’re really pushing salad bars and working to get quantifiable evidence to keep track of results.

Q: What follow up is done to make sure that schools who were given salad bars continue to use them? Do schools find the process challenging?

A: For some schools, it is kind of mindboggling… processing equipment, salad spinners, peelers, cutting boards, refrigeration. We’ve had a lot of distributors step up and support schools. Labor is a huge issue, with facilities not being able to do large scale food prep. So when distributors can do peeling, washing, and food prep, it has been a big boon for a lot of school districts.

A lot of times it takes the school district to just ask, but sometimes they don’t realize the capacity. It appears there is more cost in paying for this food prep, but schools need to do a cost benefit analysis to think this through because they are all under budget constraints.

Q: I imagine CDC feels the pinch as well…

A: What’s happening now with federal funding… we’ve had to drop initiatives. With the Sequester, every budget is going to be cut. This is not a time for us to be expanding research and surveillance. And a lot of this trickles down to states, which are also compromised.

Q: In what ways?

A: Researchers write their own questions or use standardized tools. With the 24-hour recall from Wendy Slusser’s research, you get granular breakdown. With national surveys, it gets more complicated; Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS) collects data using certain parameters and measurements. It looks at consumption of total fruits and vegetables and gets to some of the subgroups; that’s times per day, but does not get into our requirements.

The recommendations for dietary guidelines for Americans are in cups, but the data is not collected that way. The difficulty of our surveillance systems is we can’t get state data on whether kids are meeting the requirements and eating the proper amount. There are other more intensive surveys one-to-one to learn what kids are actually eating, but because these are so intensive, the people conducting the studies can only meet with a few people. We’re trying to come up with statistical models to estimate numbers.

You asked about obesity rates. For those kinds of levels of research studies, this is a longer term enterprise to show outcomes in obesity. First, there are many things that effect obesity. It would require monitoring over a much longer timeframe than we have funded for.

I can’t answer whether children’s eating habits are sustained when they have salad bars in schools, but in our studies done so far, change in dietary habits is occurring, and in the works we have plans to re-survey schools that we provide salad bars. We have baseline information, which is part of the information-gathering process in the application stages to assess the capacity of schools to implement a salad bar; are they willing to buy the fruits and vegetables, and will they operate it and keep it indefinitely? We will go through our administrative partner that will do the follow-up surveys. Alas, I’m afraid our response rate won’t be great.

Right now, we’re very proud to have hit the one-million-kid mark on the number of children benefiting from the Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools program. This is our third year working on this. We just wrote our strategic plan for the White House, and we’re looking forward to another year.

Another role of CDC is as liaison with the White House. The goal is to cross-promote among all the Let’s Move! initiatives, so were working together when it makes sense.

Q: On a personal note, how did you find yourself in this lead role? Is there an interesting back story?

A: I’m a health scientist at CDC. Before I moved into public health, I was a cancer researcher. My story came from doing bench research. I was finding biochemical affects of plant-based compounds to reduce cancer, but became concerned with statistics showing major deficiencies in people’s diets of plant-based vegetables.

Five years ago, I went back to school and got my masters in public health with a full focus on the possibilities of increasing intake of fruits and vegetables on a national scale. I finished my masters and came to CDC’s nutrition branch, and was lucky to land this position, with a particular focus on children, which is exactly in line with my objectives.

Dick Spezzano Takes Up The Gauntlet For California Schools And Building Model For National Salad Bar Program

Dick Spezzano
Spezzano Consulting Service
Monrovia, California

Q: What drives your commitment as co-chair of the California campaign to get more salad bars in schools?

A: There’s a significant obesity problem in the U.S. We all see it. When we look at the numbers, one out of every three kids is overweight and one in six is obese. Overweight children have a 70 percent chance of being overweight as adults. If this trend continues, it’s estimated 44 percent of people will be obese by 2030. When I was in the airport recently and had time to kill, I watched people go by and counted the number overweight or obese. It was mindboggling.

We see it in Europe now. We brought them the hamburger, people are bicycling less, the old days are gone of thinking this problem is only in America. Europe is behind our curve but that’s not a good curve. Michelle Obama wants to alleviate obesity in one generation, which is aggressive. If we can impact children’s eating habits, it will carry over to adults.

Q: How does Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools move the needle toward that goal?

A: The 2011 Nutrition Standards in the National School Lunch and Breakfast Program changed the whole menu on what schools can serve children. If half the plate isn’t fruits and vegetables meeting those requirements, schools don’t get federal funding.

United Fresh, since 2010, has taken on this program to get salad bars in schools. At this point they’ve donated some 1700 salad bars, impacting an incredible number of students. At a cost of about $2,600 per salad bar, the program has raised over $4 million by reaching out to the industry, retailers, foodservice operators, suppliers, growers/shippers...

Foodservice distributors and operators tell me the number of produce items they are ordering on a weekly basis is going up. They want all kinds of berries, avocados, kiwis… who would have thought that?

I was at the United board meeting in Dallas at last year’s convention and someone brought up salad bars; it was not the main point of the meeting. What a great job Dan’l Mackey Almy, President of Irving, Texas-based DMA Solutions, Inc.,  and chairwoman of the United Fresh Produce Association's Nutrition and Health Council did to raise funds for 100 salad bars; the way she put a task force together for Texas and worked with retailers, growers/shippers, and reached out to local banks.

It’s important to remember that everyone is a buyer, whether it’s for packaging or banking. Then the discussion turned to next year’s convention in California and they pointed a finger at me! Not long after, Karen Caplan, President of Frieda's, Inc. in Los Alamitos, California, said to me, “I’m your co-chair, and the process started. In addition to Karen and myself, we decided to have two other co-captains, Lisa McNeece, Vice President Foodservice/Industrial Sales at Grimmway Farms, for the Central Valley, and Margaret D’Arrigo-Martin, Vice President of Community Development at Taylor Farms,  for the Central Coast, and we’d be covered. We approached them and they said yes. We each have task force members.

In June of last year, there were 350 schools that requested and were approved for salad bars, so we had no hesitation in making that our goal by May 2013 when United would be in San Diego. Since we started, we have gotten a lot of big contributors including Apio, which did 15 salad bars last year and committed to another 10 so far this year; the California Table Grape Commission did 28 last year and committed to 30 this year; Dole 14 last year and another 10 thus far; Mann Packing five last year and at least that many this year. Pandol Bros. did three last year and already committed to one or more this year. Tanimura & Antle donated four last year and some more this year, and the list goes on…

These are just some of the bigger donators of salad bars, but we also got many companies to donate one or two salad bars. 
[See donors list here.]

Let me tell you the biggest contributor: Whole Foods on a national basis, which contributed 96, some under its Whole Kids Foundation. Whole Foods stores are pretty autonomous by area. In one area, for every salad Whole Foods sold, they contributed $1 to a salad bar. They also encourage consumers to contribute at checkout. In one day, they will donate 5 percent of profits to salad bars. They have been very aggressive.

Q: What about other retailers?

A: Other retailers have come on board, including Wegmans, Harris Teeter and Publix. Retailers have put together arrangements with vendors, such as Fresh Express, Dole, and Apio, to contribute to school salad bars. Retailers have worked with vendors — we have a promotion, here’s the pricing, and you can qualify for so much a package and we’ll contribute X to school salad bars.

Q: Do you facilitate transactions?

A: We’ve approached three chains in Los Angeles. We’re facilitating the donation process. We’ve gone to similar suppliers that have done this nationally to put together programs and see if they’ll take them. I brought a proposal to a vendor grower/shipper and he put together a program. The retailer liked the program and committed to it and qualified for two salad bars, and we anticipate in coming weeks we’ll add two more.

It’s also wonderful to work with The Fresh Produce and Floral Council. On their website, people can click on a link to donate a salad bar. They allowed me and Karen Caplan to speak at a meeting, where we provided forms and information. They do an annual charity luncheon in December and decided to open selection of charities. They took a long list and narrowed it down to 7 or 8 for association members to vote on, and the top two were Wounded Warriors and Let’s Move Salad Bars to California Schools. It’s understandable. One member said that her daughter has a salad bar at her school. All she has for lunch is huge salads, trading in 750 calories for 150 calories.

This program is very focused on California. I took up the gauntlet to do something for California schools and hope this program can become a model for other parts of country.

Q: What are some of the things you’re learning through this process that can be passed on to others?

A: On a conference call we had, Dan’l Mackey Almy took a lot of her learning on what works best. One thing she said is you have to have a variation of skill sets on committees and broker a wide range of people. Every committee member, whatever they do, must remember potential donors are all buyers. If you can’t go to a customer, maybe go to people you buy from, your box manufacturer, irrigation people, your bank, any goods and services.

I’m asking bigger vendors for ongoing commitments, multiple salad bars in multiple years. Those that are small can do a joint salad bar. We’re looking at 350 schools approved for salad bars, and a lot are located in agricultural areas of California. Grower/shippers might want to contribute a salad bar to a school in their area because they know the children and their families. Their workers’ kids might go to that school. Grower/shippers could arrange with local council members to visit those schools.

When the salad bar is installed, United Fresh looks to have some members at the school. During press events, the message is so positive and the regular media picks it up. A lot of these grower/shippers have public relations people on board or an agency, and they get a lot of mileage out of it. It’s a win-win situation.

Q: So it’s not a hard sell?

A: Donors should know that 100 percent of that $2,625 equates to one salad bar unit. None of the money goes to administrative costs. United Fresh burdens all the administrative cost and we’re all volunteers. We’re hitting California residents hardest. But we look outside the state as well.

We’ve taken a multifaceted approach. For me and Karen Caplan, Lisa McNeece and Margaret D’Arrigo-Martin, this is not our first rodeo. We’ve got power. This is not like selling alcohol and cigarettes.

Q: Do schools incur additional costs to operate the salad bar, even though the unit itself is free?

A: Some school districts are totally behind salad bars, but have to adjust their budgets. From one school liking the salad bar so well, more districts are applying, but everything is about budgeting. California was hit really hard with school budget cuts and future economic uncertainties. The salad bar is free, but there are incremental costs for fresh fruits and vegetables.

Q: Is there a way to get federal funding to cover these additional costs?

A: We received funding for the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Snack Program for schools. Politicians recognize the obesity problem and the cost burdens with healthcare. The impetus is there. Our government works very, very slowly. How do we find the funds? What do we take away? We can’t take away milk and cheese; lobbying is strong on that front. All we want is our share. Adding $5 billion to the school meal program is an easier fight when the economy is chugging along.

We’re working hard on this, and we have the low hanging fruit. First, go to the folks always willing to help out, and then go to the next tier, which will be tougher, but nothing we can’t overcome.

Why am I putting so much energy into this? As parents and grandparents, my wife and I try to have nutritious food on our table when our kids are home. This program is an economic win, but the health aspect is what drives me. When I see a kid waddle down the street grossly overweight sucking on a huge soda and sugary snack, it makes me upset.

I support calorie counts and nutritional labeling on menus. At least then, people can make a conscious decision. I’m a Californian. Anything I can do for health is good for everyone. People often think Californians’ are a little out there, but hopefully we can set the bar and this can happen elsewhere; and others will pick up the gauntlet. 

Frieda's Caplan Models Salad Bar Program After Sara Lee: "Nobody Doesn't Like" Kids Eating Salads

Karen Caplan
CEO, President
Los Alamitos, California

Q:How did you become involved with Let’s Move Salad Bars to California Schools?

A: As you know, I was chairman of United Fresh back in 2003 and have always been personally supportive of these industry initiatives. At Frieda’s, our mission is to change the way Americans eat fruits and vegetables.

When I was chairman of United Fresh, I testified in Capitol Hill. I walked in carrying a basket of produce with jicama and kiwano horned melon, and they thought I was crazy. I argued that if you give kids access to fresh fruits and vegetables, it can change consumption patterns for life.

Q: So it wasn’t a leap for you to take on the Let’s Move Salad Bars to California Schools campaign…

A: In Dallas at last year’s United convention, when Dan’l Mackey Almy announced that 100 Texas schools would receive donated salad bars, I contacted Lorelei DiSogra about the San Diego convention kick off plan. She said, “how perfect. Dick Spezzano, with his former retailer background, said he wants to help too. Would you both be co-chairs?” Since we were both in Southern California, we also wanted representatives from other parts of the state.

Our strategy to elicit donations was premised on that iconic commercial jingle, “Nobody Doesn’t Like Sara Lee”; how can you be against giving kids a salad bar? With a relatively small investment, would you like to help us put salad bars in schools, where they are set up with the infrastructure and the supply chain to get more produce to children?

These schools have the backing of school management and of the school district. When we saw the wait list of some 350 schools requesting a salad bar, and the whole idea that the list would keep growing, we were determined.

In 2011 at our convention in New Orleans, we funded 43 schools, and in 2012 in Dallas, 100 schools. Naturally, with California being as competitive as we are, we stepped it up. Think of the superintendent or foodservice director, ready to go with the infrastructure and initiative. Think of the attributes a salad bar can bring, increasing children’s enthusiasm and intake of fresh fruits and vegetables, all the associated health benefits, as well as the positive anecdotes from school officials that increasing students’ produce consumption can lead to better attendance, more academic alertness and less behavioral problems. In addition, kids go home to their parents and want to go grocery shopping and help pick out produce.

Q: Lorelei DiSogra and CDC’s Diane Harris point to the challenges of going beyond anecdotal benefits to building evidence through long-term research studies. Does this present issues when you’re eliciting donations?

A: Michelle Obama launched the Let’s Move! campaign to reverse childhood obesity in one generation. It’s about eating right and exercising, and Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools is one way to help in that goal. It’s important to start out at a very young age to integrate fresh fruits and vegetables in the diet. It’s not OK to pick up a Coke and donut on the way to school.

The food at school cafeterias when we grew up was crappy, but kids line up for the salad bar to eat fresh produce, not that canned goopy stuff. Now the staff and other members at school also have the opportunity to eat off the salad bar as well.

Frieda’s experience is that kids are used to just having the basics — apples, bananas oranges — and that bringing in more interesting items and variety adds creative fun, exposing kids to different tastes in the school snack program and lunch program.

Instead of just selling iceberg lettuce and such, it’s important to have a salad bar flush with colorful, plentiful choices. What’s happening is that people are talking about supplying salad bars with sliced kiwi, red pear tomatoes, baby cucumbers, precooked squash… not just your regular commodities.

Q: Could you talk more about the scope of the program and its impact on the industry?

A: The campaign is for one year, but it always has a halo affect. Our committee with 20 people will have enough donations to reach our goal of 350 schools; some will give $250,000; some will give one salad bar, but this campaign will also raise awareness across all states. So people will read about it and gain interest in our communities as well.

Retailers, shippers/growers and many interested parties are making donations. Bring on salad bars! We know we set a large goal, but it’s the right thing to do. What makes it easy to approach customers is that it’s also a good business decision. I’ve spoken to foodservice distributors that supply fruits and vegetables to schools with salad bars, who say their business has more than doubled.

All we’re asking the industry to do is to provide the vehicle. I think in every transaction that happens in the produce business, there’s always the logistical process. Sometimes there are no hitches, other times problems, but in general this is pretty easy.

There are systems and processes in place in every school district to facilitate getting food to schools. I don’t think that’s the issue. What’s wonderful is that more of our fresh produce will be available to schools. Those that supply schools will be able to increase the amount of fresh produce, which leads to more buying power and a stronger industry. 

Grimmway's Lisa McNeece Sees Salad Bars As Part Of Bigger Picture For Industry

Lisa McNeece
Vice President of Foodservice
and Industrial Sales
Grimmway Farms
Bakersfield, California

Q: What inspired you to take a co-chair position on this aggressive campaign in California to garner funding for 350 school salad bars in such a short timeframe?

A: I actually sit on the main board of United Fresh. Lorelei DiSogra and Tom Stenzel asked if I would co-chair the Let’s Move Salad Bars to California Schools campaign. I was very honored to be asked to join Dick Spezzano, Karen Caplan, and Margaret D’Arrigo-Martin, all wonderful, unique individuals. Each adds individual perspective and insight to what’s important, but we all agree in the need to increase children’s fruit and vegetable consumption.

It’s a here-and-now moment to capitalize on Michelle Obama’s national Let’s Move initiative. Schools lack the fruits and vegetables that should be a staple of anyone’s diet, especially children’s.

Grimmway participates in the School Nutrition Association conference, held annually in July; this year it’s in Kansas City. Years ago, Joe Stubbs from Sunkist, definitely a visionary man before his time, led efforts to make sure produce played an important role at the conference, and the produce row is a strong avenue of this show.

Q: How does your participation at the School Nutrition Association conference connect to the California campaign’s goals?

A: I think we’re on the cusp of what’s happening nationwide to address public health issues, obesity, diabetes and other diseases, in the face of high healthcare costs. Research shows that increasing produce consumption is a significant step in this fight. What better place to start than at schools? 

While it’s harder to prove, I like to think salad bars in schools make kids smarter. Yes it’s anecdotal, as well from what I’ve read, that school officials say they see students more focused with more energy and this improves their potential in class.

Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools is a winning program for students as well as for growers, shippers and the communities they serve. The more information we can provide to spur the campaign, the more we will continue to make everyone healthier.

I’m very excited at what United Fresh has done as an industry — which is not taking away from PMA, which contributed $100,000, a huge amount, to salad bars nationwide.

In our California campaign, we set a goal of getting donations for 350 salad bars by May. Our co-chairs have been very involved since the Washington Public Policy Conference in early fall last year. The momentum is there, and the excitement.

Q: What strategies do you undertake to generate funding?

A: We’re not just looking at the industry for support. We’re reaching out to corporations like Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Coca-Cola and Pepsi. We’re working closely with several different companies. So many corporations have broadened their product lines to meet consumer demands for healthier, more nutritious alternatives. For instance, Coca-Cola owns Odwalla Juices, and Pepsi sells Naked Juices. Therefore, it’s important for them to get involved.

Each co-chair has certain organizations they are speaking with and pursuing. We are approaching both traditional and non-traditional companies for funding. Anyone interested in donating or learning more about ways to help can go to the United Fresh web page and contact any one of us, and we’ll be happy to assist in anyway we can.

Q: As co-chairs on this campaign, you set demanding goals. How do you integrate this with your work at Grimmway?

A: I’m very fortunate to work for a company that allows me to be involved with our industry. Just from simple conversations, my work evolves from selling carrots to creating new product lines to salad bars in schools. My job lends strength to work all different angles. As VP of Foodservice Sales, I see salad bars definitely as a big part of our business.  

We slice and dice carrots every which way.  Schools continue to increase their purchases of fresh fruits and vegetables, not only for the salad bars, but also because of the revised nutrition standards for school lunch and breakfast programs. Districts have more funding. The farm bill is back in Congress and hopefully it will continue to increase funding for the schools.

Q: Do you view salad bars then as one component of a bigger picture? How does Grimmway accommodate the different aspects within its product development?

A: When I’m visiting customers and talking about ways of increasing carrot consumption, I look at the school side, the salad bars, the lunch menus and the after-school programs.  Snack packs can add value at a cost schools can afford.

It’s all about costs when dealing with schools. We must consider the need when developing product lines. There are different forms of carrots in salad bars; you’ll see baby carrots, shredded forms for salads, carrot chips, and coin cut as well. It’s what each school wants to see in its salad bar.

What fascinates me is the range of items now being offered in salad bars. I’ve seen kiwis and mangos. Having kids explore different tastes and textures is eye-opening for them. When they try these items at school, they tell their parents, who in turn go out and buy them, and it results in more retail sales.

Carrots are already a staple in diets because they’re sweet. We have a yellow carrot out there now, which is fun and exciting, and we are continuing to work on different items to keep kids interested.

Q: Do you work with schools to overcome any logistical or operational issues with their salad bars? What kind of relationship-building is involved to insure the success of the program?

A: Logistics are fairly simple. We work with several of the major broadliners that work with the schools. It’s a true partnership. You have to have partnerships that you align with. This business is about relationships.

A lot of school directors don’t have travel budgets. It’s important for us to go to the schools and participate in the School Nutrition Association conference.

We’re going to have a press event at United’s upcoming convention in May. It will highlight Team California for Healthy Kids’ goals and our collaboration. We will also recognize the schools and their leadership in increasing kids’ produce intake and all the benefits.  

We want everyone at this press conference so that we can get the word out and keep the program vital and long-lasting. It’s important to follow up and be sure schools are utilizing their donated salad bars and they are not in a corner collecting dust. Whole Foods has been a huge partner in this program. We couldn’t have done this without them.

I reflect upon all the special times in this whole campaign. When you believe in something, it’s not hard to go to donors. Dick Spezzano is our champion when it comes to raising funds. I’ll tell him I just got a donor willing to give $5,000, and he comes right back… they should be giving $10,000! 

On-The-Ground Report On Salad Bars From Taylor Farms’ Margaret D’Arrigo-Martin 

Margaret D’Arrigo-Martin
Vice President of Community Development
Taylor Farms
Salinas, California

Q: Tell us how the Let’s Move Salad Bars to California Schools works on the ground. What’s involved to build the program locally? How did your recent press event at the Gonzalez Middle School in Monterey turn out?

A: It was the first one we launched locally as a test and everything went well. Congressman Sam Farr came to the school and ate at the salad bar with the kids, who talked all about healthy eating and exercise.

Gonzalez was one of the schools that contacted United Fresh, and when money was raised, they were one of the first because they were preapproved. Initially, I met with the foodservice director to talk about the program and provide local resources. I asked, “Do you need training?”

He said it wasn’t necessary because the school had received a salad bar in the high school from last year’s program.  

We set up a date for the launch with a plan to bring in media and people from the grower/shipper community. Because the Congressman was so supportive, both television stations in the area showed up as well as the local paper there. A number of city council members came. We put together a press release and we had everyone show up.

The Gonzalez Middle School just had the salad bar for a week, and staff was encouraging kids, ‘don’t forget to get your salad.’ There was a nice variety of items, a mix of lettuces, and all the different colors. It looked so fresh and appealing. Kids were loading up their plates and eating everything.  The guests were impressed by how clean and well kept the salad bar was.  

The kids were very appreciative and gracious. They understood it was something special that not everyone has access to. A lot of their parents work in the industry, and it was a nice message to go home with.  Many of their parents work in the fields, and we thanked them for the work they do in helping to feed the community.

Q: Do you think the Monterey area and California in general might be an easier sell for school salad bars, since it is produce-rich and also a progressive state in promoting healthy eating?

A: We’re probably a little unique here because we’re in a farming community. What I’m doing locally involves two different hats.  We’re part of the greater, whole state initiative as well as the wider goals at the national level. What’s exciting in California is that the state superintendent of education has focused on teens eating healthy, having salad bars in California schools, more water and exercise.

We’re not out here on our own. Everyone is aligned locally, statewide and nationally. We’ve worked closely with Monterey County, training with foodservice directors and getting rid of myths that salad bars are expensive and difficult.

Q: Could you address the logistics side?

A: In the state of California, there is such great distribution and so much availability of fresh produce. It’s very easy to find a distributor to come to your school. Access is not an issue, with a lot of options locally.

From schools we’ve talked to, there are a lot of distribution solutions available; some from big companies like Sysco, others locally. We actually have produce companies like Misionero that have adopted a school through United Fresh and donated the salad bar. Misionero has not only donated the salad bar, but the lettuce mixes and blends as well. 

Such companies stand as models. Product branding in schools isn’t always encouraged, but in this case familiar signage and brands bring a positive message; parents know the company or work there, bringing the community together. It’s an important message when governmental officials reach out to these produce companies to say thank you and recognize their contributions to the community.

[See list of schools requesting Salad Bars here.]

Q: Do you connect with retailers?

A: Were definitely working with retailers. They certainly will benefit with more distribution of produce through salad bars at schools. Kids go home to parents and ask them to buy more produce at the supermarket. It goes beyond the school day to become more encompassing.

The reason I got involved is I truly believe in the mission. This is by far one of the easiest and best ways to get access to children of fresh fruits and vegetables. Especially with the free lunch program, we’re not just trying to increase consumption at school but to change eating habits later in life. One thing that drives me crazy is when restaurants tell children what they should eat on a kids menu. You never see a Caesar salad choice or sautéed vegetables.

Q: What advice can you share with produce suppliers interested in getting involved with this program?

A: Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools is a win-win for everyone. There is no negative spin. It’s great for business. When we engage foodservice directors, they’re so excited to have dialogue with grower/shippers: “What are the challenges you’re facing and how can we be better producers?”  

In earlier discussions about salad bars, the thought was to give more pre-packaged items, but now people are going back to looking at bulk. While the packaged products are quicker and easier to pick up, kids have difficulty opening them and it can lead to waste.  Offering variety and color is important.

I see kids and staff interacting about what they’re eating from the salad bar: “Do you like jicama?” “Is this the first time you tried it?” “Will you tell your mom?”

I talk to teachers, who are so appreciative. I do come from a different angle because I have small kids and, therefore, I am even more determined to keep the momentum going. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of meeting with the principal to get an official sign-off for the program. 

Conclusion: Give Generously
But Verify Effectiveness

The enthusiasm bubbles over, and one of the reasons is that the industry clearly sees business when a salad bar is put in a school. Items that schools never ordered before are suddenly being delivered and fresh consumption probably increases in the school because such a wider assortment of fresh product typically becomes available.

Besides, so many people in the industry take such pride in being on the side of the angels. They yearn to use our wonderful products to help children to lead healthier, more achieving lives. And as Diane Harris of the CDC points out in regard to salad bars and related efforts to encourage healthy eating: "There’s nothing bad about encouraging schools to bring in salad bars and try these activities."

But Dr. Harris also makes another point about the long term future of this effort: "In the long run, it’s hard to project. We don’t know the sustainability of the program for the future."

The produce industry, of course, cares about the moment at hand, but it also cares about the sustainability of the effort. That sustainability revolves around 10 questions:

1) If salad bars are so good, why is it necessary for the industry or any charity to fund the acquisition of salad bars? There are no similar efforts for ovens or refrigerators or sinks. Shouldn’t schools be expected to budget for needed equipment as part of their normal costs of business?

2) Do salad bars actually increase produce sales to schools? If so, is this total produce sales volume or is it more fresh replacing frozen and canned volume? Is it sustained over time as the novelty wears off?

3) Do salad bars actually lead students to take more produce on their plates than on a served cafeteria line? Or do they take less because they are in control?

4) For reasons of economy and convenience, most salad bars are not refrigerated… Does this have negative impacts on food safety, palatability, etc.?

5) Is there increased food safety risks associated with salad bars as opposed to pre-packaged salads? As opposed to hot line cooked produce?

6) Even if salad bars do increase sales, consumption and health, are they the optimal way to do this? Maybe putting wok stations in every school would boost consumption more. Maybe pre-packaged fruits and vegetables will be perceived as more sanitary and lead to still higher consumption. Perhaps students prefer hot food to cold, and more emphasis should be placed there to achieve the optimal result.

7) Giving away salad bars unconditionally is nice, but when Coke or Pepsi or an ice cream company give away equipment, they typically lend it with the condition that it be used to display the products of the company. To what degree are these salad bars continuously used rather than abandoned? If they are used, to what degree is it to display non-produce items, say cheese or hard boiled eggs? To what degree are the schools actually changing product so as to introduce children to new fruits and vegetables? And is there anything we can do to make sure this is all done according to the donor’s preference?

8) Do salad bars actually increase produce consumption? In school only? All week? Just of fresh or all produce?

9) Even if the presence of salad bars does increase produce consumption, does this result in better health or other improvements such as better academic performance?

10) Does being exposed to salad bars in school change eating habits and expectations in such a way that this pattern is sustained even after the circumstances change? Put another way, do students whose high schools had salad bars eat more produce in college than those who did not? If so, how long does this effect last and what is the degree of difference?

* * *

The truth is we don’t really have very good answers to many of these questions, especially to those related to the question of how salad bars actually impact consumption and human health.

This is not a trivial matter. For a while, a program can grow based on enthusiasm but, in the end, that enthusiasm is unlikely to be sustained if there is not hard evidence as to its efficacy.

Diane Harris of the CDC identifies what she calls the “most rigorous research” in support of the salad bar program in this study — A School Salad Bar Increases Frequency Of Fruit And Vegetable Consumption Among Children Living In Low-Income Households — but the truth is this study is very weak. If this is all we have in three years when we have to make the case to a new President or need to demonstrate to donors that their last gifts achieved something, we will be in big trouble.

The study looked at data from children collected in 1998, before a salad bar was introduced, and then again in 2000 after the salad bar had been introduced.

Look at just a few of the obvious limitations of this study:

A) It is dated. It was submitted in 2006 based on data from 2000! How is it possible that with the tremendous expansion of the salad bar program there is no more recent and rigorous study?

B) There is no control group. The study really can tell us almost nothing because there is nothing to compare it to. You need to do the same interviews in schools that don’t add a salad bar to be able to see if the salad bar caused changes. Otherwise, you are using the salad bar as a kind of “residual” and crediting it with any changes one can’t account for in another way.

C) The study only applies to children eligible for the USDA reimbursable lunch program. It tells us nothing at all about children who don’t get free meals.

D) The study only covers children in schools in which 100% of the students are eligible for free lunches. Its finding may be inapplicable to mixed environments.

E) The study relies entirely on the recall ability and honesty of 7 to 11 year-old children. No attempt is made to cross-verify with adults or purchase data, food diaries, etc. Children’s recall could easily have been impacted by the educational component which taught them what the “right” answers are.

F) The importance of salad bars is muddied by the inclusion of an educational program. Whatever changes occurred may be due to the educational element and have happened without regard to the salad bar.

G) The research didn’t study the same children over time. Although researchers interviewed children in the same school over time, they were not the same children. No efforts seem to have been made to control for any variables such as religion, household income, single parent status, education of the parents, etc.

Now, none of this means we shouldn’t support salad bars in schools. All of us often have to make decisions based on imperfect or limited information. It is not an unreasonable thing to believe that salad bars can be a force for good in the schools.

But it is also reasonable for the industry to expect that its leaders will have a plan down the road to prove the efficacy of these efforts.

Research is expensive and does take time but, perhaps, after the California effort is done we should decide to raise the price of each salad bar by 5% with that overage going into a fund that the United Fresh Research and Education Foundation could use to conduct research to determine the efficacy of this effort.

Research may be expensive, but spending industry money on things without being certain of the results is not an acceptable option.

We need to move ahead right now. We urge the whole industry to support the salad bar effort by donating here or here, but we also need to move ahead with the research that will prove we are spending money wisely. It has to be a two-track approach or all the good we do now will be at risk when we can’t demonstrate we are making a difference.

We think this effort will make a difference, and we believe we should collect the data to prove it.

Many thanks to Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott for conducting these interviews and to Diane Harris, Lorelei DiSogra, Dick Spezzano, Lisa McNeece, Karen Caplan and Margaret D’Arrigo-Martin for exerting leadership and sharing that leadership with the industry at large.

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