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WASHINGTON -- The United Fresh Produce Association has launched a new campaign called A Salad Bar in Every School, a multi-year effort in which the produce industry will raise funds to donate salad bars to schools around the country.

The association linked the new initiative to first lady Michelle Obama's anti- obesity campaign, which also was unveiled Feb. 9. On the same day, President Obama established a task force on childhood obesity charged with developing an interagency plan to address the growing epidemic.

"We are pleased to join first lady Michelle Obama's campaign announced today to combat childhood obesity, one of the greatest health threats to our children and long-term threats to our nation's ability to provide affordable health care," United Fresh President and Chief Executive Officer Tom Stenzel said in a Feb. 9 press statement.

Under the new initiative, United Fresh will raise private funds from produce growers, distributors and marketers to finance salad bars in schools to demonstrate the benefits of increasing fruit and vegetable consumption.

The group did not disclose its target fundraising goal, because "this is seen as an ongoing commitment by the United Fresh Foundation and the industry to make this happen," Ray Gilmer, vice president of communications for United Fresh, told The Produce News, adding that the initial phase will create demonstration sites at schools across the country to show the impact these salad bars can have on nutrition and hopefully help in generating political support for the salad bar strategy and funding.

The first produce company to support the new campaign, Chiquita Brands International, is lending multi-year support for the salad bar initiative and challenged other produce companies to do the same.

"We are committed to promoting better childhood nutrition and wellness, and we are pleased to join United Fresh in this campaign," Fernando Aguirre, chairman and CEO of Chiquita Brands International Inc., said in a Feb. 9 statement. "We can't think of a better way to support this effort than by providing improved access to fruits and vegetables with school salad bars. We have already been an active partner in this campaign, and we call on our industry colleagues to join this important effort."

Studies have shown the numerous benefits of adding salad bars to schools, and some in the produce industry have said that salad bars can teach children lifelong healthy eating habits and counteract the rising childhood obesity epidemic.

"By increasing access to fresh fruits and vegetables through salad bars in schools, we can provide kids a personal experience about making choices that can shape behavior far beyond the school lunch line," said Lorelei DiSogra, vice president of nutrition and health for United Fresh.

United Fresh donated its first salad bar to the Elsie Whitlow Stokes Public Charter School in Washington, DC, last fall and is a strong advocate for federal legislation, the Children's Fruit & Vegetable Act of 2009 (H.R. 4333), which would create a national salad bar policy for schools.

"We strongly support the Obama administration's childhood obesity initiatives and urge the Congress to provide similar support in reauthorizing childhood nutrition legislation this year," Mr. Stenzel said in the statement.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was scheduled to speak Feb. 8 on childhood nutrition issues at the National Press Club in Washington, but the event was cancelled due to the city's snowstorm. At the event, he was expected to call on Congress to act swiftly and pass strong childhood nutrition legislation.