U.S.: Michigan dominates Salad Bars to Midwest Schools campaign
Out of the 640 U.S. schools on the waiting list for the 'Let's Move Salad Bars to Schools' campaign, more than half of them are in Midwest states; an appropriate percentage as the United Fresh Produce Association is driving a focus on the region ahead of its annual convention in Chicago next month. And as the Windy City will host the event for the next two years as well, the organization is running an unprecedented three-year fundraising drive to provide these convenient produce displays for schools in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin.
Michigan is well ahead of the pack as far as interest is concerned, according to United' policy and grassroots manager Andrew Marshall.
"In that region there are 327 schools currently on the waiting list, and the majority of schools requesting salad bars at the moment are in Michigan, with 176 schools," he tells www.freshfruitportal.com.
"We work with somebody at the state there, and they were really diligent about sending out notices. We've seen that their notices are working."
He says United has two co-chairs in each of the six states who are reaching out to potential participants, whether they be schools, produce industry players or even companies with no connections to fruits and vegetables.
"We’re looking at a variety of different venues to get folks engaged in the campaign, such as the Tour de Fresh that's being organized by Cal Giant and DMA Solutions. They've got 40 riders on board now, and I believe at least half of them are riding to support salad bars for Midwest schools," Marshall says, adding that installing each salad bar costs US$2,825.
"One of our co-chairs has had some really good success getting some salad bar contributions that are actually not from produce industry folks at all, coming from trucking companies, electrical contractors, or companies that manage benefits packages and insurance. They've managed to leverage those relationships.
"Our Minnesota co-chairs started slow but they've actually set up a crowdrise viral page. It's like a kickstarter campaign and it's something they've got out there to promote to their friends, family and colleagues in the industry."
Marshall says the implementation of salad bars is about creating expectations for children to see a diversity of healthy food in their lunch options.
"If we can create an experience every day when a kid goes through a lunch line, that's a golden opportunity for our industry."
A key goal of the salad bar scheme is to induce healthier diets and stem the tide of childhood obesity. However, for the majority of Midwest schoolchildren who were aged 2-4 between 2008-2011, obesity trends were unchanged in that time.
A survey conducted by the Pediatric Nutrition Surveillance System showed Michigan and Minnesota were the only states in the region to record decreased childhood obesity levels during the period.
But it was only the tail end of this survey that could have possibly had any impact from the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act 2010, which Marshall says led to requirements for more fruits and vegetables in school lunches from the 2012-13 school year, and will involve the application of the Smart Snacks in Schools standards from July this year.
"It's almost two sides of the same coin. On one side it's the legislative piece which United worked on to get the law changed so now schools have to serve more fruits and vegetables, and they have to serve a wider variety.
"There are also different sub-group requirements by color for vegetables, so school have to serve a certain amount of red-orange vegetables each week, like carrots and sweet potatoes. Now they have to serve a certain number of dark green vegetables each week as well.
"What the salad bar does, it puts a focus on fruits and vegetables in the lunch line, and more than that it empowers kids to make their own choices."
He adds the Smart Snacks in Schools rule will be very positive in schools where children tend to buy junk food to supplement packed lunches, as food sold in schools will have to meet certain nutritional standards.
"The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act not only impacted what can be served as part of the school lunch program, which some students get free or at a reduced price because of their income level, but there's also a section of that legislation which gets to the foods that are sold to students," Marshall says.
"That’s a win-win for produce, because now a kid that might have been used to bringing their lunch from home and buying cookies, will buy a two-ounce bag of sliced apples, or they can get baby carrots with ranch dip, or a pineapple push-up.
"It gives our industry a way to talk to school foodservice directors now to say, 'hey you want to try this and see if the kids will purchase this'."
Marshall believes the Midwest interest in salad bars will extend beyond the current three-year fundraising, as witnessed by the continued participation of groups involved in previous campaigns centered around conventions.
"There were so many folks who engaged both in California and Texas in the last couple of years; people are excited about it and it's still top of mind for a lot of people in the industry," he says.
"The school business is growing, so more folks in the produce industry want to learn more about it and get involved in that area, and they know that with these new regulations in place, schools have to serve more produce.
"With kids being in school as long as they are, they’re eating more than 50% of their calories at school."
A school distributor's experience
While Phil Muir's business does not directly relate to any Midwest states, as a produce distributor he is giving his support to the campaign. With the Federal Government's increased funding for fruits and vegetables in schools, his company Muir Enterprises has seen its business soar eight-fold in as many years, servicing schools in Utah, Wyoming and Idaho.
"We were doing a few school districts but it was a very small amount of business, but then we decided to focus on that and we were able to win a school lunch contract which is administered by the Department of Defense out of Philadelphia," says Muir, who serves on the United Fresh Nutrition and Health Council.
"That started out as a fairly low amount, because of congressional funding and the change in the emphasis to supply better food to our schoolchildren, the value of that bid was increasing every year.
"And when that contract expired we re-bid it and won it again. Now that funding source alone, that’s grown five-fold in the last eight years."
He said that contract allowed Muir to expand into other school districts where extra funding had been acquired for produce purchases.
"Five years ago schools were struggling with the delivery mechanism for fresh fruit and vegetables, and the salad bars provided an excellent delivery mechanism for them to do that.
"It gives participants in the school lunch program an opportunity to fill their own trays and mix and match what they would like, and the outcome of that is that they’re eating more fruits and vegetables as a result.
"So when I served that food locally and saw what was going on nationally, I thought we really need to get behind this as an industry because first of all, it is a means of changing the eating behavior of our youth so we can fight childhood obesity, but it's also one of the best mechanisms I’ve seen for growing our industry."
In terms of particular produce items that have benefited from school programs in recent years, some are to be expected but Muir also cites a few surprises.
"Thinking back historically, schools were always buying oranges, apples and carrots, maybe some iceberg lettuce, the traditional things on the lunch line. Anything outside those basic commodities has benefited hugely. Grapes for example have benefited tremendously," he says.
"The variety of leaf items going into schools has increased tremendously, and with the funding they've had, schools have had the opportunity to experiment so now a lot of school districts are serving fresh kiwifruit and fresh peaches, and I don't think they did that before; it was always canned this or canned that.
"There are two other items that I think were seldom sold before, and that's broccoli and cauliflower."
While this may sound counterintuitive as these produce items are such both such dietary staples, Muir says new ways of serving them have helped push up their consumption in school lunches.
"You would think they’d be standard practice. In the old school system they were probably serving those items cooked, and you think of a lunch line with cooked broccoli and cauliflower, maybe in some cases overcooked.
"Now they're serving broccoli florets and cauliflower florets florets in a raw form on a salad bar. That’s much more attractive, so I think the volume there has gone up tremendously."
He adds that a diverse variety of melons has also gained traction in school lunch programs, while there has been increased room for non-traditional items on occassion, such as blood oranges and dragonfruit.