With obesity affecting one in five people aged between 5-19 in the U.S., First Lady Michelle Obama's ambition to eliminate the disease among kids in one generation is no easy task. Fortunately, her 'Let's Move!' initiative overlapped with the efforts of groups aiming to bring salad bars to schools, prompting a synergy that has now widened produce options for more than 1.3 million children. In May, the nationwide 'Let's Move! Salad Bars 2 Schools' campaign leveraged off the United Fresh trade show in San Diego to brew up a storm of interest from California. Organizers are aiming for a similar push next year in Illinois and potentially the broader midwest.
A school salad bar can be installed with every US$2,625 donation, with the types of fruits and veggies available at the discretion of the district's foodservice director. At the time of writing, almost US$6.6 million had been raised.
"It is really much more than a piece of equipment going to the school. It is getting school administrators involved, getting parents involved, and it gets kids excited," says United Fresh Produce Association policy and grassroots manager Andrew Marshall, whose organization is a co-founder along with the Family Food Farming (F3) Foundation, the National Fruit & Vegetable Alliance and Whole Foods Market.
"Seeing all the colorful varieties is what's getting the kids to eat more fruits and vegetables, and it's empowering them to make their own choices as opposed to having somebody just put something on their plate that they don't want," he said.
"We're hoping that if they make those choices at a young age, they're going to continue to make those choices as they get older as well."
The impacts have already been felt for produce suppliers servicing the schools involved. Frieda's Specialty Produce CEO Karen Caplan, who co-chairs the Let’s Move Salad Bars to California Schools Task Force, emphasizes that one San Diego school district reported almost a tripling of produce purchases thanks to the program.
"It really begs the question, 'how can you say no to giving kids access to fruit and vegetables?' It has made a good business case for the industry to support this because we’re increasing the consumption of fresh produce. We're building future consumers."
"Wholesalers are seeing schools more as a viable customer that needs to be listened to and they’re being able to better understand the school business now that there’s been this additional uptake, and they’re starting to see if they can work with other school districts," adds Marshall.
From chicken nuggets to hommus and carrots
F3 Foundation founder Ann Cooper has a very personal attachment to children's health. The chef published the book 'Bitter Harvest' in 2000, where she questioned the food supply system and why such a heavy leaning towards processed foods was making people sick.
Wearing many hats, Cooper is also the director of nutrition services at the Boulder Valley School District in Colorado. She says the salad bar initiative is one of the most important ways to comply with the new United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act 2010, but it will take time to change the eating habits of American children.
"We now have grown a generation of children who think chicken nuggets is a food group. They think apple is a flavoring in a fruit roll-up, so if you say 'apple' or 'grape' to a kid, they don't actually picture in their mind an apple or a grape.
"So we’ve gone so heavily into processed foods that we've got sick kids, and we've got kids whose life expectancy is less than their parents’. It's a real problem for us.
"But I think we're on to something. I think the changes in the program have legs. The Obama administration has been instrumental, Michelle Obama has been a tremendous advocate, and I think that we are seeing change happen that's sustainable."
She says making the segue from chicken nuggets and cheetohs to scratch-cooked food takes a while for kids to accept, but once they do the result is "amazing".
"The older kids tend to get a bit jaded about everything, but with the younger kids we see amazing stuff all the time - just the other day I was in one of the schools and some elementary school kids were dancing around the hommus with carrot sticks, saying ' this is sooo good'!
"There are 100,000 schools give or take in this country, and we’ve only touched around 2,500 of them, although we do know a lot of schools actually already have salad bars; maybe it’s as many as 20%, but even if that's the case there are still tens of thousands of schools that we could put salad bars in to.
"Some schools certainly have salad bars and still have bad foods; just because they have salad bars doesn't mean the food's going to necessarily be better, although I think once people put in salad bars and see kids eating from them, they're more likely going to change their food."
With salad bars from Hawaii to Alaska to Florida, the diversity of the food on offer is what Marshall calls "a visual representation of the healthfulness of the school meals".
"With all the things that have happened in the last year or more with changes to school food and the high visibility of just food in general, people are more conscious about it," he said.
Cooper says fruits are one of the easiest products to use because they are sweet and children tend to like them, but from the vegetable side her district uses composed salads.
"Even something like tabbouleh, that's at heart a grain salad, is a really easy way to add other things like tomatoes and cucumber and parsley.
"We really try and look at things in the broadest possible scope beside just having cut vegetables - which kids do like. We'll steam the broccoli or roast the cauliflower, just to give kids different kinds of flavors and tastes."
Another practical aspect of the Boulder initiative is a program called Rainbow Day, which was developed with Let's Move! and is explained in a manual on website Thelunchbox.org.
"We go to every single school twice a year and invite every single kid up to the salad bar and they have to take five colors, not including white, and when they take all five and eat them they get a sticker.
"Giving kids access to salad bars is in my estimation the number one way to help change their relationship to food and grow their palates."
Stimulus spending on a different kind of infrastructure
United Fresh VP nutrition and health Lorelei DiSogra says there have been several policy efforts to get Washington promoting fruit and vegetable consumption for kids, especially since comprehensive research showing how beneficial this could be started to come out in the early 2000s.
The organization had been discussing the salad bar idea before Obama came into office in January 2009, but the stimulus package gave United Fresh an impetus to up the ante.
"It [the stimulus] was about getting people back to work and building infrastructure for after the recession; shovel-ready projects, that kind of thing," she says.
"When people on the hill started talking about infrastructure most people were thinking about fixing roads and building bridges. For me, I thought about why couldn’t we get congress interested in using some of the stimulus money to provide cafeteria equipment to schools.
"So we worked on the stimulus and were able to get US$100 million for cafeteria equipment. That was a really important point, and then we quickly saw what the real need was out there."
She said schools started to apply and the demand for cafeteria improvements came to an estimated level of US$650 million, which DiSogra said surprised her and the USDA.
"You match that then with our interest in salad bars as an effective strategy, so we started to look at which school districts were using their stimulus money for salad bars.
"Andrew and I went around and visited many of those districts and saw salad bars. We asked why would you do this and it was all about increasing kids’ consumption."
The stimulus amount for school cafeteria equipment eventually came to US$125 million, according to DiSogra. Discussions continued on Capitol Hill with United Fresh bringing in researchers and school leaders to explain the benefits of fruits and vegetables in schools.
It was about a year after the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was enacted that the stars began to align for United Fresh's salad bar idea. In January 2010, the organization's board approved the 'Salad Bar in Every School' initaitive, and then a couple of weeks later Michelle Obama initiated Let's Move!.
"We then went to the White House and suggested that our salad bar campaign become a part of Let’s Move, because it just seemed like a fit," DiSogra says.
"The first meeting at the White House was around April, 2010. Then we went through a period of more meetings at the White House and a lot of meetings and negotiations for the next six months."
Around the same time, F3 and Whole Foods were working on the 'Great American Salad Bar Project' and reached out to United Fresh. The two programs were a perfect fit to become part of Let's Move!.
"Obviously, when you become aligned with the First Lady’s initiative, it becomes something much bigger. There were four founding partners, and we’ve been working together really incredibly well since the fall of 2010."
United Fresh trade shows raise interest
The campaign was officially launched in Miami in November, 2010 and has since spread like wildfire. Caplan explains how after that event, United Fresh trade fairs helped push interest further.
"Two years ago in New Orleans, Louisiana they raised enough to put about 40 salad bars in schools surrounding New Orleans. Last year in Dallas, Texas they raised enough money to put about 100 salad bars in schools, which is about US$265,000.
"This year the conferene was in San Diego, California, so a group of leaders in the industry (Caplan, Taylor Farms' Margaret D’Arrigo-Martin, Grimmway Enterprises' Lisa McNeece and consultant Dick Spezzano) had a meeting the United staff and said we want to take it to a new level.
"Much of the produce in the United States comes out of California, so you have a lot of growers here that are very engaged with the produce industry."
This whole new level implied 350 salad bars, which was the number of schools in California that had applied when the target was set.
"I do have to highlight that the Whole Kids Foundation gave funding for more than 100 salad bars. So when all was said and done in this year-long campaign we ended up raising enough money to fund over 440 salad bars.
"It’s a continual moving target, so every week more schools are applying for these salad bars, so even though we only had 358 last July, and we funded 440, there’s already a waiting line of about 120 schools right now."
DiSogra emphasizes that "California's not over", with one donor recently asking United to put in another grant application for US$75,000.
"To have one foundation come to us and say they want to do more, we’re hoping we can leverage that with other foundations that contributed, so if their contribution was in 2012 or the early part of 2013, there’ll be another funding opportunity in whatever their next funding cycle is, to support California schools.
She says United Fresh is still making its plans around the United Fresh convention in Chicago next year.
"This time it could be several Midwestern states – we’re kind of looking at lots of different possibilities here. For sure, if I have anything to do with it, it’s not just going to be Chicago.
"What we were able to demonstrate the last two years, working on a state-wide campaign for California and last year for Texas, it makes sense to do a broader geographic area."