Making Farm to School Work for your Salad Bars
In Celebration of National Farm to School Month
By Emily Miller
Picture your child walking into the school lunchroom on their first day back to school. The doors swing open and what do they see? A salad bar brimming with fresh from the farm fruits and vegetables. Juicy grape tomatoes, red bell peppers, refreshing cucumbers – the colors and tastes make their mouth water, and gets them excited about this nutrient-packed part of school lunchtime.
At Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools, we believe that salad bars and farm to school make a healthy match. The quality and freshness of local produce contributes to a tastier product that appeals to even the pickiest of eaters. And, when schools develop relationships with farmers, it opens up new avenues for teaching kids about where food comes from and how to make healthy choices. In honor of National Farm to School Month, we caught up with some of our Let’s Move salad bar recipients to see how they are making farm to school work. Here’s what we learned:
Richmond Public Schools, headed by Food Service Director Susan Roberson, is a district that’s proving urban environments can make farm to school procurement and education a priority. “We are an urban school system with most of our students living in food deserts,” Roberson explains. “They don’t have the opportunities at home to eat fresh fruits and vegetables, ” which is why having local variety in the lunchroom is so important.
Around the same time Richmond began implementing salad bars (called garden patches in their schools) they also received a USDA Farm to School Planning Grant that allowed them to explore the readiness and eagerness of students, staff and community for fresh local food incorporated into the school system. They found that the enthusiasm was there, but the infrastructure was lacking.
“We surveyed farmers in our community to find the obstacles and challenges of transporting crop into our schools,” Roberson notes. They found what was really needed was a food hub that farmers could deliver their goods to, and where the produce could be properly readied for distribution to the district’s 44 schools.
Richmond Public Schools is now working with the city to make this vision a reality, and the district continues to forge ahead with their emphasis on local, farm fresh options in the meantime. For example, elementary schools are implementing school gardens that yield enough crops – such as kale, tomatoes, peppers and lettuce – to serve on the salad bar.
In addition, Roberson ensures that farmers visit the kids to teach them about how food makes it from field to cafeteria tray. “Some of the funniest stories are when the farmer is telling the kids ‘this is a peach, where do you think this came from?’ and the students are hollering ‘from a can!’,” Roberson said. “The students are amazed to realize that they really don’t know where food comes from. It really helps you understand the importance of what we’re doing here.”
San Diego, CA
Salad bars are the heart of the meal program at San Diego Unified School District. With the bountiful harvest of Southern California right on their doorstep, it’s easy to understand why. Since 2006, San Diego USD has offered salad bars to their 132,000+ students. Almost ten years later, the district has over 300 salad bars dispersed throughout 180 schools—31 of which were donated by Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools!
The San Diego team is passionate about educational activities that bring farmers and their stories to the school too, not just their harvests. “When I initially came into the district, my experience was connecting kids to where their food comes from, and coordinating farm field trips,” says farm to school coordinator Kathryn Spencer. But working in the second largest district in California, getting the kids out to the farm is logistically very difficult. Spencer’s solution is bringing the farm to them in a Harvest of the Month video that she and her team produce and edit on an iPad.“It’s a way of taking our kids on a virtual farm field trip.”
The three to four minute videos provide information about the farmer, how the produce is harvested, a history of the item and its nutritional properties. Spencer notes that in the schools where these videos shown by teachers regularly, there’s a real difference in how students respond to trying the new items on the salad bars. “Encouraging kids to try new fruits and vegetables is always something that needs to be thought out, reinvented, and approached in different ways.” Certainly, Spencer has come up with an innovative and engaging program for San Diego Unified School District.
Walking away from the salad bar with lunch trays packed with vibrant veggies, students in Bristol, Vermont are exclaiming “I love those beet things!” or “I love that kale stuff,” all thanks to Kathy Alexander. Food Service Director of the Addison Northeast Food Service Cooperative (ANFSC). There seven salad bars in this school district—one in every cafeteria. The salad bars, which consist exclusively of fresh fruits and vegetables, have transformed the way her schools serve kids. Students head to the salad bar first, where they’re excited by the range of options and the fact they’re allowed to make their own choices.
Alexander works alongside ten different local farms. Last year, the food service program set a goal of 15% local procurement – and they reached it! During the early fall months, between 30% and 50% of produce is local, from both school gardens and area farms. A seasonal favorite is the Tuscan Kale Salad: light lemon vinaigrette, breadcrumbs, and kale. (Hint: shred the kale to make it more appealing and palatable.)
The students notice when the produce is local. The unique brightness of the fresh vegetables catches their eyes. Parsnip chips and kale chips are both hugely popular. Every ANFSC school has a fruit and vegetable garden, and each school’s curriculum includes agriculture in some way. Students are actively connected to their regional food shed, whether it’s through the school garden or a field trip to a farm just down the road.
At a local legislative meeting, where preserving farm to school funding was on the agenda, Alexander brought a seventh grade boy who had graduated from a local elementary school’s farm to school curriculum. “So, I just want to know what difference it has made in your life?” inquired the legislator to the boy. The student spoke enthusiastically about his views, “Now I think twice about my food. I think about where it came from. I think about who grew it. And I think about eating it so I don’t waste it.”
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