06/15/2010 01:49 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Bringing the Food Revolution to Our Schools

Lynda Resnick's Ruby Tuesday

Ruby Tuesday Pick of the Week: United Fresh's A Salad Bar in Every School program
Why It's a Gem: Early exposure to nutrition can equate to a lifetime of wellness.

United Fresh: A Salad Bar in Every School

With childhood obesity now at epidemic proportions, Michelle Obama has spearheaded Let's Move, a program whose mission is to solve the crisis within one generation. Even if the timeline weren't so ambitious, the First Lady would have her work cut out for her, especially considering the poor state of school nutrition. With frozen pizzas and fries dominating cafeteria menus, it's no wonder that our nation's children are developing poor eating habits that they bring home and carry with them throughout their lives. As places of learning, schools have a responsibility to also educate on nutrition, which we all can agree is far more important than algebra, no matter what your third-period teacher claims.

Lynda Resnick: In this week's Ruby Tuesday, we are speaking with Lorelei DiSogra, Vice President of Health and Nutrition at United Fresh Produce Association. For our readers, can you describe A Salad Bar in Every School, the program that United Fresh is initiating?

Lorelei DiSogra: The goal of A Salad Bar in Every School is to increase children's consumption of fruits and vegetables. Kids eat less than half of the amount of fruits and vegetables that they should every day. We believe that there are a number of different strategies that need to be put in place so that schools become a model of healthy eating habits, and school salad bars are an effective strategy to increase kids' consumption.

There've been some research studies done at UCLA [in the early 2000s] by Dr. Wendy Slusser, and we at the National Cancer Institute [where I was at the time] saw her preliminary results and started to engage USDA in this effort around salad bars. There's a history to this whole effort. It's not something that just came about at United Fresh in the last couple of months.

LR: Tell me, what is United Fresh?

LD: United Fresh Produce Association - that's the complete name - is a trade association representing the produce industry.

LR: You know how much I believe in nutrition. The products we sell are all natural and packaged by Mother Nature. But I also know that, given a choice between a pizza and iceberg lettuce, kids often aren't motivated to take the healthy choice, even if it's available. The first step is making it available, and in most schools, the choices don't exist. But the second step is motivation. Is there a school program that helps kids understand how important fresh fruits and vegetables are to their growth and their future health?

LD: Yes. Over the last couple of years, there have been a number of [initiatives] to increase nutrition education in schools. Many schools have nutrition education programs. But as we've seen large school districts roll out salad bars, you can see the impact that they have on children. Generally, when schools are introducing a salad bar for the first time, there's a lot of fanfare around that, [as well as] efforts around nutrition education and promotions.

New York City is one of the most incredible examples of such a school district. It's the largest school district in the country [with approximately 1,600 schools], probably the largest one in the world. They feed just under a million kids a day. About two years ago, they made a commitment to salad bars when they started thinking, "How do we improve the nutritional quality of school meals?" So they started to put salad bars in as many schools as they could. There was $100 million of funding for cafeteria equipment in the stimulus, and New York City schools got $2 million of what was allocated to New York State, and they used that $2 million to buy salad bars for 99 elementary schools.

Now, every Friday in New York City schools, the kids get pizza - 800,000 kids. The day we visited was a Friday, and we went to several schools in Bedford-Stuyvesant. So the little kids came through the cafeteria and got their slice of pizza. Chef Jorge [first executive chef of the New York City schools] has already totally modified that pizza in terms of improving the nutritional quality. In the cafeteria, there were baskets of fresh fruit. And then the kids came out of the cafeteria, and there was the salad bar. And every kid went up to the salad bar. Here were these kids, these little kids, piling on broccoli florets and romaine lettuce and baby carrots and cherry tomatoes. And the kids were just so excited. That's what we've seen in many, many schools.

LR: That's fantastic. So, how are you funding this?

LD: We really believe that there are many different ways to fund this program. But now we've officially launched the Salad Bar in Every School campaign in a way that the industry can contribute. We've already had some major produce-industry companies contribute what I would think would be significant amounts of money. And, starting in April, we started to place salad bars into schools with those early contributions.

LR: What does it cost to put a salad bar into an average school?

LD: We provide the schools with a choice of two different pieces of salad bar equipment - and there's a big price difference between these two pieces. One is a salad bar made by Cambro, which is from California. It's heavy-duty plastic and is very easy to take care of. It has wheels and it's easy to move and has cold packs that go underneath the trays; it's not electric. That runs at about $2,500 dollars.

We also wanted to be able to offer a stainless-steel electric salad bar, so we then settled on a company called Vollrath. They make a very beautiful and effective salad bar that's electric and stainless steel. Those run about $6,000. You can see that there's a difference in price. We provide the specs as we're working with schools that are going to receive salad bars. We give them the choice, and we don't even talk about what they cost. The cost is our issue, not their issue.

Do you supply the funds?

LD: In the schools that we've been supplying them to, yes.

LR: And then where do they get the money to buy the fresh produce?

NYC schools are seeing more kids pile on the veggies.

LD: When we're in negotiations with school districts that will be receiving salad bars, there are a number of questions that we ask -- criteria, if you will -- to make sure that we select a school that's really going to utilize it. That's critical. We ask the superintendent, the principal, or the school food-service director, "Why do you want a salad bar?" Then [we ask if they] have the resources to be able to put a wide variety of fruits and vegetables into the salad bar every day. What do they consider to be a wide variety? How does the salad bar fit in with the school district's own goals to improve the healthfulness of school meals?

LR: Could you adopt a school and put in a salad bar? Could an individual do that?

LD: Yes! We're using the industry's contributions to place salad bars into certain school districts, [but also] many members in the industry are personally taking leadership for adopting schools in their local area. There've been many smaller produce companies that have said, "I really want to do this in my own local community." And we help them. [Another way for a school to secure a salad bar is to] leverage other funding. That could be local PTAs, foundations, or the schools themselves making the decision [to support the salad bar] out of their limited cafeteria equipment funding. In geographic areas where they have large contracts, Sodexo and Chartwells have both made decisions recently to put salad bars into all those schools. When they look at how nutrition standards are going to change for school meals, they see the salad bar as a way to accomplish those changes.

LR: Because there is going to be legislation.

LD: Yes. There are two things that are going to be happening in terms of policy. One is that, hopefully, Congress will finish the Child Nutrition Reauthorization legislation, which will, among other things, provide additional money for reimbursement rates for school meals. Although it will never be as much as what everybody needs, it'll be something. And we believe that in this legislation, the increased reimbursement rate, will be tied, directly --

LR: To fulfilling those goals!

LD: Yes! To performance.

LR: As it should be.

New York City's salad bars have been a rousing success.

LD: Right. The second thing that's happening in terms of policy is that the USDA will be releasing a proposed rule on new nutrition standards for school meals based on an Institute of Medicine Report that came out last October, [which] made recommendations for how school meals need to change to be healthy. In that report, they're recommending doubling the amount of fruit at school breakfasts and doubling the amount of fruits and vegetables at lunch.

LR: I think Jamie Oliver has done a lot towards bringing awareness to the obesity problem, don't you?

LD: I do, and I think that the follow-up to what Jamie Oliver's done is what happened at the White House on Friday. This is all part of the First Lady's program called Let's Move - and it was a new program called Chefs Move to Schools. Sam Kass, the Obamas' personal chef, has been working with a core team of chefs that were already committed to schools or in schools, like Chef Jorge in New York City. They prepared a tool kit and recruited more than 700 chefs from around the country. All of these chefs were in Washington on Friday making a commitment that they were going to adopt schools to really help transform their kitchens.

LR: I think it's all great and I think you're wonderful to be doing this, and I hope we can help in some way. I hope that people who read this article may be motivated to step up and adopt schools in their area. It is so important that we save our children, because they're the future of our planet.

LD: It's so important, and I think now's the time.

LR: Absolutely.