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United Fresh 2010: School food executives talk about success of salad bar program in NYC schools

by Rand Green | April 27, 2010
LAS VEGAS, NV -- Many people believe that getting school-age children to eat fresh fruits and vegetables is a major challenge, but the experience of the New York City school food program demonstrates that children will eat fresh produce if it is available and convenient and if they are given choices, as is the case with school salad bars, according to two presenters at United Fresh 2010 here April 21.

Speaking at the breakfast general session on the subject of New York City's commitment to increasing school kids' consumption of fresh produce in school meals and, specifically, of the city's commitment to putting a salad bar in every school, were Eric Goldstein, chief executive officer of the city's Department of Education, Office of Nutrition & Transportation, and Jorge Collazo, executive chef of New York City SchoolFood.

"We are philosophically and spiritually committed to increasing the access of our students to fresh fruits and vegetables," said Mr. Goldstein. "It is important to us, it is important to City Hall, it is an important part of our DNA. … We strive to make fresh fruits and vegetables foods of convenience" for the students, and salad bars achieve that goal. "Salad bars are about making produce a food of convenience for our children, so when they make choices, they make the right choices."

New York City SchoolFood is the largest school foodservice provider in the United States, providing meals in more than 1,600 locations in the New York City public school system and serving more than 860,000 meals per day, including over 200,000 breakfasts.

NYC SchoolFood serves lunch to about two-thirds of the students in the school system as well as breakfast to about one-fourth of the students, according to Mr. Goldstein. However, "we have a new program we call Breakfast in the Classroom," and where that program is implemented, "participation goes up to about 90 percent." Fresh produce is "a big part of Breakfast in the Classroom," he said.

School lunch participation is higher in elementary school than in the higher grades. "High school kids are a tougher market for us," he said.

Just thinking of the students as a market is an important component of the success of New York’s programs which have undergone some "revolutionary" changes in recent years, not only with the increased focus on fresh produce but with the hiring of Mr. Collazo as executive chef in 2004 and an effort to get the foodservice teams in each school to treat students "like customers and not like inmates."

Produce figures large in the NYC SchoolFood programs. For example, "we do about 65 tons of fresh broccoli a year and 364 tons of fresh tomatoes," Mr. Goldstein said. "We are big, [but] we want to get bigger."

Currently, there are 1,100 salad bars in New York City schools, almost half of those in elementary schools, according to Mr. Collazo. "We want to see that grow." The vision is "a salad bar in every school," he said. "We know that kids love to eat green salads."

It is "just a beautiful thing to see these little kids taking salads," he said. Even high school boys will eat salads for lunch when there is a salad bar, but "it has to be there, it has to look nice," said Mr. Goldstein. "If it is convenient, they are going to eat it."

For younger grades, the salad bars are built to scale. "They are low, not the 36-inch ones you might normally see," Mr. Collazo said.

One of the very early things NYC SchoolFood did in implementing the salad bars was "to create a whole training program around it" and design "a field guide for our staff to follow" with "standards of presentation and preparation," he said. "We have certain standards. … We are committed to using fresh vegetables in the salad bars as opposed to canned."

About 90 percent of the salad bars in the program are self-serve.

New York City schools have about a million students, and about 40 percent of them are overweight or obese, Mr. Goldstein said. "We have a real problem on our hands," and it is "a national problem." One of the main solutions, he said, is "healthy eating."

Salad bars in schools have become "a symbol in this country for everything that is important in child nutrition," he said. "We hear from school districts" all around the country that want to know how to implement a school salad bar program.