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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. 

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