A few weeks ago, our regular Houston ISD Food Services Parent Advisory Committee (PAC) meeting took the form of a field trip to give PAC members a firsthand look at one of HISD’s three new salad bars introduced earlier this year.
If you haven’t read any of HISD’s past communications about its new salad bar pilot program, here’s the background: last year, the Houston Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association (HFFVA) turned over the proceeds from its annual charity golf tournament to HISD to cover the cost of three salad bars (the bars themselves along with inserts and tongs, but not the actual food) with a commitment to provide funding for a total of twenty salad bars by the end of 2012. With the help of CAN DO Houston, HISD identified three elementary schools to take part in the pilot program: Highland Heights, Frost and Isaacs. All three schools have a low-income population (over 95% of children qualify for free or reduced price lunch) and all are located in so-called “food deserts,” i.e., areas in which access to fresh produce is limited. All three also have school gardens.
A reminder about "cart manners"
At the PAC field trip to Highland Heights Elementary, HISD Food Services Executive Chef Steve Crisler explained some of the logistical difficulties the district has faced in rolling out these first three salad bars, including a need to educate children in salad bar etiquette (no using fingers, no putting food back, etc.), meeting the sometimes unpredictable ebb and flow in student participation, addressing hygiene issues (the district has learned to keep the sneeze guards completely lowered for this shorter clientele) and determining which salad bar foods will be most popular with kids.
After some initial experimentation, Food Services has hit on a combination of fruits and vegetables that resembles less a traditional adult “salad bar” (with lettuces, dressing, croutons, etc.) and more of fresh crudité plate. HISD has been serving at any one time combinations of four of the following items: cucumber slices, baby carrots, broccoli florets, whole apples, canned diced pears, whole pears, canned apricot halves, canned peaches, oranges, pineapple and whole bananas. Each month, one of these foods is also part of HISD’s new “Harvest of the Month” program, highlighting Texas-grown produce. Here’s a picture of last month’s selection at Highland Heights:
Raw broccoli florets, baby carrots, canned apricots, and whole apples at Highland Heights.
Crisler said the district has been pleasantly surprised so far by the students’ positive reaction to the salad bars, which are known in schools as “Fresh Express fresh fruit and veggie carts.”* (This report says that students were actually hoarding the food at first, before they realized the carts were a permanent fixture.) On the day we visited Highland Heights, a relatively significant number of kids did line up to take items from the cart,
Some kindergarteners get a little help.
especially the carrots and the whole apples. (A whole pear was served with school lunch that day, but a lot of students were leaving those untouched and taking the apple instead, perhaps because the pears weren’t ripe enough, or perhaps because pears are a less familiar fruit.) I spoke one-on-one with a few kids about the school’s new salad bar and they all were quite enthusiastic about it, enjoying the food and the freedom of choice it offered.
Right now, the district is spending an additional $500 a week per school to stock the carts with produce, food which is currently taken for free by students and is not included as part of the federally reimbursable school meal. However, stemming from the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act late last year, changes in the way HISD menus will planned (specifically, moving from a nutrient-based to a food-based approach) means that starting in the fall of 2012, HISD salad bar offerings will become eligible for federal reimbursement. This is huge news because it means that if a school can come up with funding for a salad bar, Food Services will soon be able to keep it regularly stocked. (In the past, schools interested in getting a salad bar were told by the district that it could not provide the food.)
The question, then, is where do we get the funds ($2,500 – $3,000 per bar) to put salad bars into the almost 300 schools in HISD that might want one? Seventeen more schools can benefit from the aforementioned HFFVA grant before the end of 2012, but that leaves well over 200 schools in our district that still need funding.
One option is for schools to raise the money themselves through PTO/PTA fundraising efforts, but this raises the disturbing prospect of only affluent schools (where kids most likely already have access to fresh produce) getting a salad bar, while poorer schools more in need of the fresh produce are unable to do so. Another option is for parents and interested community members to make donations to fund salad bars across HISD via a Let’s Move! initiative called “Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools.” (Interested donors can also direct their Let’s Move! contribution to fund a salad bar at a specific school in HISD provided that the school first fills out an application.)
But with over 80% of our district’s students qualifying for free and reduced price lunch, a salad bar in the lunch room is a prime opportunity to expose our children to healthier choices. It could also help stem the rising tide of childhood obesity, which in HISD currently affects one in three of our students. So instead of the piecemeal approaches described above, perhaps the district can be persuaded to fund the salad bars across the board, a significant but one-time investment in our children’s longterm health and well being.
*I’ve heard some confusion about whether these salad bars are somehow linked to or sponsored by the Fresh Express brand of packaged fruits and salads. My understanding is that there is no such relationship, and HISD simply chose the “Fresh Express” name because “salad bar” can be a turn-off for some kids.
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