School Salad Bars – Smoke Screens or The Real Deal?

A dad emailed me recently to tell me that his daughter has been asking if she can participate in the lunch program so that she can eat salad from our new salad bar.  Since the salad bar is included with the cost of the whole lunch, he wanted to know which meals were ones that I would want my own kids to eat.  Um.  Okay – this is awkward.  I am working with the food service department to  help implement the salad bar and ultimately bring in more money that can be put right back into better ingredients.

But I had to admit that I wasn’t excited about my kids participating in the hot lunch program at all…except for maybe on the days when the burritos come in from a local restaurant.  I suggested that he pack an entree from home and simply allow her to supplement her meal with a salad that she could make herself.  Not exactly a ringing endorsement for our lunch program.  Yet.  But I told him that we were working on it and the next time he asked, I hoped to have a better answer.

One of my biggest fears is that our new salad bars are a smoke screen to distract observant people from the hot lunch entrees that are still being served.

packaged pizza

At least we have ditched the packaging and now buy these in bulk...

Our entrees need work.  One group of kids from the middle school recently called them “dog food.”  Ouch.  They are improving a bit but still have a long way to go.  Plus, there are still those pesky packets of “snacks” (colored empty calories).  Our food service director just went to a school food convention in Los Angeles with the California School Nutrition Association, where companies were demonstrating their newest “food products.”  Hopefully, she had our voices echoing through her mind as she walked the aisles – “no artificial colors, no trans fats, no high fructose corn syrup…”  And the real bonus – Jamie Oliver gave the keynote speech!  That ought to have provided some fantastic inspiration and motivation to keep our improvements moving in the right direction.

Luckily, our team is working with some folks at Project Lunch to set up some standards (bronze, silver, gold and platinum) for school lunch programs that should help us see clearly where our food currently stands and exactly what we would need to change to achieve a higher status.  Let’s keep our fingers crossed that everyone can work together without feeling like one committee is stepping on another’s toes.

I was invited to do a talk on Affordable Healthy Meals for parents at one of our schools last week, and discovered this in the kitchen…

cheese dip

Hardly the "real food" we are aiming for...and NO, cheese is not in the top several ingredients.

What’s the current state of your school’s lunch program? Or do you pack your own?

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33 Responses to School Salad Bars – Smoke Screens or The Real Deal?

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention School Salad Bars - Healthy Food or Disguise for Processed Entrees? | What's Cooking With Kids --

  2. Tracy says:

    Here’s hoping you can continue to improve school lunches! Glad your school is taking steps in the right direction!

  3. Girl…I so admire your passion and dedication!! Best of luck to you…you are definitely making progress.

  4. Amanda says:

    You are making a difference!!! I love the great info you get out there!

  5. i’m still packing lunches. the boys can choose to eat at school one day a week, they choose pizza day. it’s not the best, but it’s papa john’s pizza so i’m hopeful that it’s better than whatever pizza with chemical additives we could get from a heat and serve vendor.

    getting fresh fruit and veg in a palatable way to kids is a good first step. at least your district was open to it. Spring Branch ISD in Houston still resists salad bars citing cost, and reimbursement regs (hard to determine whether a salad bar meets reimbursement requirements when kids help themselves to meat/meat alternate and grain portions.)

    sadly reforming school food is a long process. we have to celebrate the wins while looking forward to the next step. keep up the good work!

    i was pleased to hear that after our recent taste off competition (tasting of produce for all students) vegetable consumption was up 10% in less than a month. we still have room to improve because only 1/3 of students are taking fresh veg when it’s offered.

  6. naomi says:

    Oh, Michelle, thank goodness for you and your vision. I shudder to think what it will be like when my son goes to school. I’m taking notes now in case I need to take it stand. 🙂

  7. I am always amazed to hear what is served in the schools… It’s so great that you are working towards healthier lunches for kids. Keep up the great work!

  8. This is such an important thing, and I hope you know that each step you’ve made so far was a giant leap, even if you couldn’t give that dad the answer you really wished for when he emailed.

  9. You are doing God’s work. I have no idea how you deal with all these opinions, all the bureaucracy, how you handle the tiny baby steps without totally collapsing into a screaming heap when things move at a snail’s pace. You amaze me. Keep doing it, Michelle. In the end, the benefactors will be our kids.

  10. You’re doing an amazing job here, Michelle. Can’t wait until we meet in person! Mrs. Q had so many nice things to say about you.

    • Michelle Stern says:

      I can’t wait to meet you in person either, Aimee. Such similar missions… I love Mrs. Q and am so happy that the two of you connected!

  11. Mrs. Q says:

    It’s rough out there — you’re walking a tight rope and making it look easy. Great work!

    • Michelle Stern says:

      Making it look easy? Hee Hee… good thing y’all can’t see the tears and knots in my stomach half the time…

  12. cheryl says:

    This is an incredibly heartening sentence: “Our food service director just went to a school food convention in Los Angeles with the California School Nutrition Association, where companies were demonstrating their newest food products.”

    She’s listening.

    Keep talking.

    • Michelle Stern says:

      And you want to know the most amazing thing? She came home talking about chocolate milk being a ridiculous choice as part of the lunch program! She used to think it was a right of passage. We are coming a long way, baby!

  13. Kris says:

    I hear our district has a long way to go before there is even real food in the kitchens where the food is cooked. Hope that improvements are made before Audrey gets to school. If not she is used to taking lunch when she goes to the drop in center. Keep up the good work! I will need a good role model when it is my time.

    • Michelle Stern says:

      Kris – you are doing such a wonderful job with her at home that she will be fine, no matter what her school food situation. She will hopefully still happily tote in a lunch from home, if that is what’s needed…

  14. Keep up the great work, the changes are so important, and I am really hopeful that lasting changes can be made.

    • Michelle Stern says:

      Thanks Sylvie. I think of the kids who rely on school food and know that what we are doing is making a huge impact on their lives and their health…not to mention their learning.

  15. You are making such amazing differences! I’m so proud of you!!!

  16. My daughter’s school in Brooklyn actually has a pretty decent school lunch, whole wheat bread, not too many processed foods. (She’s just in Kindergarten so I’m still not acquainted with the folks that have made this a reality.) Still I pack lunch mainly becuase I know for sure it will be healthier and she won’t have to deal with the scrum of the line.

    They have a salad bar two days a week, run by parent volunteers. At first the salad bar was only for kids that take hot lunch, which I thought was a bit weird. Why not let the kids get an apple or some veggies if they want? Recently they opened it up to everyone, which I hope will get the kids all excited to take a piece of fruit! Thank you for your continued work and attention to this!

  17. What Kim (aka Yummy Mummy) said: I bow to your patience and diplomacy. It’s one thing to blog about and advocate for this stuff. It’s another to have to deal with the flesh-and-blood reality of personalities and opinions and distracting containers of fake cheese.

    We pack snacks and lunch (no cafeteria in our small school, and I like it that way). But if I were in your situation, I’d suggest the same thing: eat the salad bar, but pack the rest.

    • Michelle Stern says:

      Thanks Christina and Kim – yes, I am truly in the trenches…slipping on dropped cherry tomatoes and all. It is amazing to see the kids happily eating their veggies and so worth the effort.

  18. sarah henry says:

    Late to the table but kudos none the less, Michelle, for your continued efforts on the good food front in your kid’s school cafeteria. I think you do a fine job showcasing the very real obstacles to change in school lunch. But change is coming, girl, and you’re helping to make it happen.

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