White House to put up to 5,000 salad bars in schools
First Lady Michelle Obama is expected to announce on Monday a major new initiative that would place up to 5,000 salad bars in public schools nationwide, despite uncertainties over how local health inspectors might treat those salad bars and USDA nutrition-tracking rules that could prove a major impediment.
Officials in the White House, led by chef Sam Kass, and at the U.S. Centers for Disease and Prevention, have been working to build a coalition representing the produce industry and Ann Cooper, director of nutrition services in Boulder, Colo. schools, who recently teamed with Whole Foods to raise $1.4 million from customers to establish a grant program that would place salad bars in qualifying schools.
Under the initiative expected to be announced on Monday in Florida, where First Lady Michelle Obama has taken her "Let's Move" campaign to fight childhood obesity, Cooper would manage applications for salad bars from the schools along with distribution of funds to purchase necessary equipment.
One potential obstacle to the program is the refusal of many school districts to install salad bars for food-safety reasons and because of cumbersome USDA rules governing the federally subsidized school lunch program that feeds some 31 million U.S. school children every day.
Cooper named three school districts she knows of -- Philadelphia, Austin, Tex., and Montgomery County, Md., -- that have already indicated they will not support salad bars. Concerns have been raised that elementary school children in particular might be prone to spread disease at salad bars because they are too short for the standard "sneeze guard" installed on most salad bars, or because they might use their hands instead of the serving utensils provided.
Cooper, who would not comment on the pending White House announcement, has dismissed those concerns, saying, "As far as I’ve found out, there are no documented disease outbreaks from school salad bars. By and large, this is not a high risk area."
But schools also are deterred by USDA regulations that require students to pass by a cash register or "point of sale" station after they have been to the salad bar to ensure that they have served themselves the correct portions of fruits and vegetables required under the federal lunch program. In October, the USDA's Food and Nutrition Services division, which oversees the subsidized meal program, circulated a memo saying that while it encourages the use of salad bars in schools, school menu planners must tell students the minimum amounts they must take from salad bars, cashiers "must be trained to judge accurately the quantities of self-service items," and point-of-sale registers "must be stationed after the salad bar."
Cooper has previously said USDA rules too often "don't work on the ground" and that forcing students to double back and pass a checkpoint after they've been to the salad bar "slows everything down."
Also, the CDC was trying to determine how local health inspectors might pass judgment on salad bars scattered across the country and what federal health requirements they might apply.
In addition to Cooper, the White House initiative participants are said to be United Fresh Produce Association, the National Fruit and Vegetable Alliance, and Whole Foods. The recent Whole Foods campaigns raised enough money to pay for salad bars in 564 schools. Around 570 schools applied for salad bar grants. Until now, the produce industry has been backing its own campaign to donate salad bars to schools.
Michelle Obama has embraced more fruit and vegetable consumption as a major plank in her efforts to improve American diets and combat weight-related illnesses, especially among children. Kass, who directs the First Lady's nutrition efforts, was seen as central to bringing the various salad-bar interests together and developing a unified effort under the White House banner.
A reporter for the Washington Post in a previous life, I now tend my “urban farm” about a mile from the White House in the District of Columbia and teach kids something I call “food appreciation.” I believe in self-reliance, growing food close to home and political freedom for the residents of the District of Columbia. I am currently working to introduce local produce into the D.C. school system. I write a daily food blog called The Slow Cook.