Farm-Fresh Salad Bars Give Students A Healthy Choice In Santa Monica Schools

If the MacDonald children had their way, every school would offer a salad bar. Emmanuel, Eran, and Elisha MacDonald-no relation to the restaurant chain-are African-American students in the Santa Monica public schools. As might be expected of teenagers in a fast food culture, they struggle at the cafeteria with whether to buy a hamburger or a salad piled high with farm-fresh produce. But through the schools’ pioneering lunch program, they’re coming to understand why it might be better to select the salad.

“Both my grandparents on my father’s side died of diabetes, and my grandmother on my mother’s side has it,” says Emanuel, using tongs to grab a leaf of chicory at a summer lunch program the schools host in a Santa Monica park. “My uncle told me it’s related to being overweight; so if eating salads helps keep the weight off, I guess it’s a good thing.”

Tracie Thomas gives him a thumbs up. She has been pushing local farm vegetables for the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District since the first pilot salad bar opened at McKinley Elementary in 1997. “It’s great to see them choosing food that isn’t going to give them a heart attack,” says Thomas, who directs food and nutrition services for the district.

Thomas and former Food Service Director Rodney Taylor are heroes of a burgeoning movement to bring nutritional health back to public schools. They have shepherded their Farmers’ Market Salad Bar from a tiny pilot to a thriving institution serving ####### students at the district’s ####### schools. Taylor, who hopes to bring the program to the Riverside schools where he now directs food services, credits a persistent parent with planting the idea.

“I was reluctant,” he says, with a laugh. “Most well-intentioned projects that don’t originate with the food service are successful at only one thing: failing. But this parent was persistent. He even had a grant to cover some of the initial labor costs. I couldn’t help but say ‘yes’.”

The parent twisting Taylor’s arm was no dabbler. Bob Gottlieb, director of the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute (UEPI) at Occidental College, had a daughter and a son attending McKinley Elementary. He also had a professional ambition to link small-farm viability with the fight against childhood obesity. Gottlieb knew high-quality produce from the farmer’s market, full of color and flavor, would tempt even the pickiest children. “We thought if kids tried it, they would come back for seconds,” says Gottlieb. “And coming back for fresh carrots or strawberries-and not French fries-meant fewer calories and better eating habits.”

The problem was Taylor had already tried salad bars at McKinley Elementary. On average, only about ten percent of students chose salads in place of the standard, highly-processed chicken nuggets, pizza or hamburgers. Such low participation made the salad bar impractical. But Gottlieb and the staff of what is now the Center for Food and Justice at UEPI had the means to explore precisely why the salad bar was failing. They held focus groups, asking students and parents at McKinley about food preferences. “Complaints ranged from the pre-cut lettuce being brown to the carrots being dried out to the fruit coming out of a can,” says Gottlieb. Providing samples of fresh produce, the researchers learned such tricks as offering the lime and lemon wedges Latino students like to squeeze on many fruits and vegetables.

Once Gottlieb had convinced Taylor, they took their idea to the managers of the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market, Laura Avery and Ted Galvan, who were so keen, they offered to deliver produce to McKinley for free. “We look out for our farmers,” says Avery, “and they expressed massive enthusiasm for the project.” The market also helped convince the City of Santa Monica to pledge matching funds of $10,000, which they’ve continued to give each year.

In preparation for launching the salad bar, in-class promotions and field trips to farms and the farmers’ market raised student interest. Thomas took more than 1500 students to visit farmer Phil McGrath, who grows organic vegetables and lemons on 28 acres in Camarillo. “She wanted them to see where their produce comes from,” says McGrath. “She’d say, ‘Here’s the farmer, here are the strawberries, here’s the land.’ They were energized from being on the farm.”

That energy wound up in line at the salad bar. Participation in the Farmers’ Market Salad Bar shot up by 711 percent. The lesson: an investment in presentation and quality of produce plus a hands-on “marketing” campaign to compete with fast food help children make the healthy choice for fresh fruits and vegetables. “To my surprise, it worked,” Taylor says, 5 years later. “I realized I could positively impact the health of children, that it was my duty.”

The Farmers’ Market Salad Bar quickly spread to other schools. “One every two weeks,” recalls Food Supervisor Thomas. While it was a challenge to expand so fast, the increase in participation meant an increase in income to cover new expenses. “It was our version of economies of scale,” says Thomas. Using matching funding of $43,800 from the California Nutrition Network and an additional $3000 from the school district, the food service was able to give every school a Farmers Market Salad Bar by 2001. The funding is also helping extend nutrition education into complimentary arenas, such as a school garden whose harvests are featured on the salad bar and a composting program, where worms transform kitchen scraps into rich soil, completing the cycle. In 2002, the district opened the once-a-week summer lunch program in Santa Monica’s Lincoln Park, with plans eventually to serve summer-school cafeterias. Though preparing, monitoring and breaking down the salad bar is labor-intensive and the costs keep staff busy writing grants, the Farmers’ Market Salad Bar, once a parent’s pipe dream, has become a roaring success, inspiring similar programs in districts from Los Angeles to Yolo and Santa Cruz counties.

Taylor added the word, “nutrition,” to his department title two years ago and Food and Nutrition Services staff throughout the district now wear aprons proclaiming it “Home of the Farmers’ Market Salad Bar.” The logo, drawn by a high school student, shows ethnically diverse students crowding around a server at a table full of fresh produce.

Avery, of the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market, is confident the lessons of the program will last beyond the school years. As students learn where to find fresh local produce, they develop not only good eating habits but also shopping habits that support local farms. “The students bring their parents to the market,” says Avery, “and when they grow up, they’ll keep coming. Or so we hope.”