Editor’s Note: This post originally ran in the summer of 2016, but getting kids interested in healthy food is always important—especially as another school year gets underway.
The only surefire way to increase consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables is to provide access to fresh. Simply put, kids cannot eat what they cannot access. According to United Fresh, more than 4,000 schools and 2 million kids have access to salad bars in schools today. I’m proud to say that the Minneapolis school district, which serves more than 35,000 children every day, is among those who offer fresh fruits and vegetables through the use of salad bars.
If you are just starting your journey toward fresh fruits and vegetables in your school or are looking at new and innovative ways to keep things exciting, I offer three areas of focus: your commitment, making it fun, and your community.
Focus on your commitment
In the Minneapolis school district, our Culinary and Wellness Program’s mission is nurturing all children through access to quality food and active living. When we consider quality food, we cannot overlook fresh fruits and vegetables. That’s why we’ve made implementing salad bars in our schools a priority. Over the past four years, we have been able to bring salad bars to 90% of our schools. But this hasn’t come easily. Some of our schools were not designed to address the refrigeration requirements needed to keep produce fresh. Some of our schools were challenged by the cost to implement salad bars. And, some of our schools were worried that kids wouldn’t like it.
We remained committed to our mission. To help our schools, we worked with grant programs, secured private donations, and engaged with United Fresh’s Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools program. We prioritized schools for salad bars based upon their ability to implement with relative ease. And, where we needed to, we worked with facilities management to ensure we had proper refrigeration for the produce. Finally, in schools where sanitizing equipment couldn’t be implemented, we started offering a mobile sanitizing station that delivers sanitized utensils and picks up utensils after use. This was a significant undertaking for our district. However, we remained committed to our mission and brought it to life through salad bars. And, due to that commitment, we have reaped results beyond our imagination.
Focus on the fun
I’ve been a firm believer that when you make fruits and vegetables a requirement for kids, they won’t seem as appetizing. So we focus on choice, taste, visual appeal, health benefits, and fun. When kids come in the cafeteria, they are drawn to the salad bar—it’s truly a rainbow of food. We talk about how fruit is nature’s candy. Behind the scenes, we work to ensure the produce in the salad bars is high quality. When we serve high-quality fruits and vegetables, kids have better eating experiences and they crave more.
Another change we have noticed is that when we started giving kids options and allowing them to take what they choose, they eat it. They enjoy it, and they come back for more. It gives me great joy to watch kids who have never eaten fresh fruit pick up pineapple or apples or peaches and taste them for the first time.
Focus on your community
Salad bars may be located in schools, but they have a lasting impact on the community your school serves. I receive emails and calls from parents who are trying to find fresh produce that we have served before. They are curious—their kids come home raving about something they tried and asking their parents to serve it, too. For that reason, when we offer something new in our salad bars, we post the recipe or information online so parents can learn more.
We also have found great success in engaging a taste test panel from the community. It includes students, parents, local chefs, and other community members. At least three times a year, we add something new to the salad bars. We know that kids have to enjoy the flavor, but we also focus these taste tests on texture, experience, etc. Along the way, we’ve had some great successes—surprising ones, too: beet hummus and apple kale salad. We’ve also had a few that haven’t gone over well, but those are few and far between.
Bottom line: Focus on fresh
When I look back over our journey of bringing fresh fruits and vegetables to our schools, I have a sense of pride in all we’ve accomplished. Then, I hear from our teachers about the difference they see in the kids. And I hear from parents who want to know more about what we’re serving kids. And, most importantly, I see the enjoyment and excitement our students have for fresh fruits and vegetables. I firmly believe that implementing salad bars into our schools has been one of the best, easiest, and financially sound ways to introduce fresh produce to kids and turn them into lifelong fans.