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May 2012: Salad Bar Reflections, Continued

Salad bars in school cafeterias have equally impassioned advocates and detractors. “Salad Bars: Rad, Bad or Just a Fad?,” by Penny McLaren, published in the May 2012 issue of School Nutrition, provides a look at some of these deeply felt opinions in an effort to help readers make the decisions that are right for their individual operations and communities. Following, McLaren offers four additional reflections and insights on the matter.

TOSS THE SALAD (BAR)

Chris Kamradt, director of nutrition services for Spring Branch Independent School District, in Houston, Texas, says his team faces opposition to salad bars not only from the health department, but they hear about it from manufacturers of the equipment, too. “If you try to purchase serving line equipment from a manufacturer, they will tell you that you can’t do self-serve like for a salad bar at the elementary level,” warns Kamradt. “They will tell you that you have to wrap everything in cellophane or put it in a container, in order to meet NSF standards.” Although the National Science Foundation (NSF) is not a regulatory agency, its recommendations have been adopted as policy by local and state authorities and are often followed by equipment manufacturers on a voluntary basis.

Kamradt finds irony in the ongoing advocacy for school cafeteria salad bars, “When here in Texas, there has been a considerable increase in attention to it by the health department. Between the health department and the NSF, it all but precludes using any salad bars. We would have to have everything packaged [to be] self-serve at the elementary level, and that’s certainly not in the spirit of a self-serve salad bar.”

Although the district’s schools don’t feature any salad bars now, the schools used to offer them about seven years ago. “We did away with them, because they were not cost-effective,” Kamradt reports. “For the price, the use was more than we could afford.” The school nutrition team received very few complaints when the salad bars were discontinued, he says, and of the ones they did hear, most were from teachers, rather than parents or students.

Today, Kamradt is comfortable with the amount of fruits and vegetables made available with reimbursable meals. In fact, he notes, most districts in Texas are already ahead of the new meal pattern standards for increased produce servings, as this had been an earlier state mandate two to three years earlier. In addition, the menu includes three different prepackaged salads: a chef salad, a garden salad and a popcorn chicken salad. “We do a lot of them at the secondary level and a dozen or more each day at each elementary school,” he notes. But he doesn’t rule out salad bars for everyone and believes they are doable, even in a large district. In fact, he speculates that it might be easier to do in a larger district for better cost efficiencies.

RAISE THE (SALAD) BAR

But some small school districts beg to differ. The Manchester Essex (Mass.) Regional School District has just two elementary schools and one middle/high school. And Sheila Parisien, SNS, school nutrition director, has had great success with salad bars at all three sites.

The salad bar at the secondary level was established three years ago, and it is available daily. In the elementary schools, the salad bar is available two days a week during the winter and more often in the spring as the weather warms up and student demand increases. Parisien says it was the PTO that pushed for the salad bars in the schools. “I was not a big supporter of the salad bars,” she admits, noting her concerns about food safety and her personal avoidance of them in commercial outlets. “There are as many minuses as pluses about them.”

With that concern top of mind, Parisien makes sure the school’s salad bars are safe. “At all levels, we keep a close watch over them,” she notes. “We have had no real problems.” Students are trained every year in salad bar etiquette, and signs are posted on the salad bars with food handling instruction reminders. There is always a staff member or monitor or the cashier present.

Since the PTO championed the addition of the salad bars, they raised the money to purchase the equipment for the elementary schools. The salad bar for the middle/high school was provided through a Whole Foods grant that was part of the Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools initiative.

Parisien reports that her team provides a variety of vegetables, as well as beans, meats, two kinds of cheese and a whole row of fruits. “Kids like to make their own choices,” she observes, conceding that the availability of the salad bar is “absolutely helping them to eat more fruits and vegetables,” even eating such items as a kale salad. Occasionally, the variety of available choices is supported by the harvest of fresh produce from a “pretty extensive” school garden, says Parisien. For example, the school salad bar was able to feature squash and kale from the school garden plot all the way up to December. (Students work in the garden for school service points.)

TOSS THE SALAD (BAR)

Ensuring food safety is just one reason that Manatee County (Fla.) School District doesn’t use salad bars in its schools. Sandra Ford, SNS, director of food and nutrition services and SNA president-elect, explains her aversion to offering salad-bar service: “It’s the whole food safety challenge, but there are also the waste and control of production challenges.”

Ford prefers to focus on the success her team has in making a variety of fresh fruit and vegetable choices available on the line in portion cups, such as oranges cut in wedges, kiwi cut in half or a portion cup filled with grapes or cucumbers. “We give lots of choices,” she explains. “We have five to six fruits or vegetables every day that students can choose.”

Children can self-select their choices. While each day’s menu offers a featured fruit and vegetable, site managers will prep two to three additional choices. Elementary students take what they know they can eat. If they plan to eat two or three or even four items, they can take it. Secondary students, however, are restricted to a maximum of three choices.

By portioning out the servings for students, waste is controlled, asserts Ford. “We can put it in a portion cup and have it ready, but save it for the next day, if it is not needed, or only put out 25 cups at a time,” she explains. If they are using a salad bar and filling a steamtable pan, “Once the pan goes out of the kitchen, it is done; we can’t bring it back.” If it’s an off day or an unpopular item, it could add up to a lot for waste across the district’s 54 schools. Salad-bar service “might be easier with a smaller district,” she reflects, “but whatever we do, we want to do it district-wide.” And that strategy works in her district. Ford and her team are successfully serving 80% of the student enrollment. “We don’t feel the need for salad bars; they are already getting so many choices.”

RAISE THE (SALAD) BAR

When Nancy Coughenour, MS, RD, LD, SNS, was named director of foodservice at Shawnee Mission (Kan.) School District five years ago, salad bars were already in place, and she’s just fine with that. “We like salad bars, because the kids can self-serve and take as much as they want,” explains Coughenour. “We don’t limit them. We find that kids will try something new, if they take it themselves. I am amazed that kids like to eat raw broccoli!”

The school nutrition team offers as many “colors” on the bars as they can—every day. The equipment allows them to menu both hot and cold items. To ensure food safety, managers pull the serving utensils at every break, which is between lunch periods at the middle and high schools and in the break after each class at the elementary schools. “We are also constantly changing out the items as needed,” Coughenour reports, “depending on the size of the pans.”

At elementary schools, the salad bars are shorter in height, appropriate for the average size of students, which helps in food safety efforts, although makes them more difficult for staff to clean. To address that problem, the units feature hinged sneeze guards so that employees don’t have to try to bend down and reach around them to keep the unit clean.

Reaction from parents has been very positive, notes Coughenour. “They can read about the food variety on the menu, but they say ‘Wow’ when they see it in person.”