Vice President of Community Development
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.