Growing Great Schools is working to preserve the weekly salad bar option at West Hartford’s 11 elementary schools, but the only way it can be supported is if students continue to buy it.
By Ronni Newton
The goal of having weekly salad bars in all West Hartford public elementary schools was finally met last fall, but now Growing Great Schools is working to get more students to purchase lunch in order to maintain the healthy option.
“Over the past three years Growing Great Schools has been trying to formulate ways for kids to get more fresh fruits and vegetables and salad bars were a great fit,” said Susan Kamin, public relations and community outreach director for the West Hartford non-profit organization.
West Hartford Public Schools has offered a salad bar to elementary school students on an occasional basis for many years, with a traveling set-up going from school to school. It has taken several years, but as of October, Kamin said, each of the 11 elementary schools now has its own equipment, and salad is served as the lunch meal every Wednesday.
The equipment, which cost between $1,700 and $1,800 per school, was funded by both Growing Great Schools and the PTOs.
And although West Hartford Public Schools Nutrition Services prepares the food and stocks the salad bars, extra hands are needed on Wednesdays. Growing Great Schools has provided manpower support as well, with representatives from each school recruiting volunteer staffers.
After what appeared to be a successful effort, Growing Great Schools was more than just disappointed when an email was received in November, Kamin said, indicating that because Nutrition Services was losing money and salad bar sales were down, as of January salad bars would only be offered every other week. “We reached out to PTOs, and many were outraged,” Kamin said.
Nutrition Services Director Trish Molloy said that it’s a challenge to balance the USDA guidelines with what kids want to eat, and do it within a budget. “The biggest piece of the equation is pleasing the students. It’s not nutrition unless it’s in their stomachs,” Molloy said.
Kamin, who is a nutritionist, said that it can take 10 to 15 tries before a child likes a new food. Since some of the schools have had salad bars only since October, that’s not enough time to be given a true chance of success, she said. “I agree that [Nutrition Services has] a challenge, but at the same time, we don’t think that’s the reason to serve the kids junk, just because they’ll eat it,” Kamin said.
To try to save the weekly salad bars, PTO representatives met with Nutrition Services in December and a plan was developed, with the approval of West Hartford Director of Finance and Planning Chip Ward, to keep weekly salad bars in place through the month of January if sales could be increased.
“All the schools have done marketing campaigns, helped by Growing Great Schools,” Kamin said. One school has a poster contest, others have taste testings. Kamin said that Nutrition Services has been helpful, working with them on the taste testings.
“Taste tests are a good way to expose kids in a non-threatening way,” Molloy said. This week Charter Oak students will be taste-testing garbanzo beans, aka chickpeas, she said. “Beans can be a tough sell.”
Since early December salad bar sales have increased dramatically, and although they are not quite at the targeted level at all schools, Kamin said that Ward has agreed that weekly salad bars can remain at least through February. “We’re taking it month by month,” she said.
Molloy said that the devoted work of the volunteers from the PTOs and Growing Great Schools has led to a “very successful increase in participation in the past month.” The marketing has had an immediate impact on salad bar meal counts, she said.
The salad offerings differ somewhat from week to week and school to school, and once a month the salad bar is a taco bar, including tortillas. Staples in addition to lettuce include carrots, corn, tomatoes, legumes, cheese, and eggs. There are also meats such as diced turkey or ham. Sometimes the meat is chopped up chicken nuggets, which Kamin concedes is better than many other alternatives. Growing Great Schools’ chef partners have contributed, developing special grain salads.
“The teachers at the schools absolutely love it,” said Kamin.
In addition to the salad bar, Molloy said that there is also soup made from scratch at each school, bread, fruit, and milk served as part of the meal on Wednesdays. The salad bar includes dry toppings as well as a choice of dressings, she said. The cost is $2.75 for students.
“Salad bars are something we really want to highlight and feature in our department, at all grade levels,” Molloy said.
Kamin’s message to parents: “Let your child buy lunch. The more they’re buying, the more likely it is to be continued to be offered.” Parents can come to school, too, and try the salad bars with their children.
In addition to promoting the salad bars, Growing Great Schools has initiated “Tasty Texts” which are texts sent out to subscribers every afternoon with the elementary school lunch menu for the next day. There is also an option to receive weekly lunch menus via email. To register, click here.
Although Growing Great Schools has been focued on the elementary schools, Kamin said that the organization is “working to grow into the middle and high schools.” They are also working to get gardens at all of the schools, and continuing to support spring and fall farmer’s markets at all of the elementary schools.
A fundraiser will be held this spring, Kamin said, probably something focused on family fitness.
To learn more about Growing Great Schools, visit their website www.growinggreatschools.org.