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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. 

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