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Salad Bars Taking Root in Urban Schools

SURROUNDINGS COMPTON

If You Build It, Children Will Come to the Salad Bar

Given a choice for lunch, more grade-schoolers are choosing fresh veggies over corndogs.

By Mary MacVean
LA Times Staff Writer

November 4, 2004

In the cafeteria at Caldwell Elementary School in Compton one day recently, not a single child was in line for the standard lunch of corndogs and canned fruit. A few feet away, though, a dozen children stood waiting for the salad bar, where the line has gotten so long that an aide sometimes plays "Simon Says" to amuse the children while they wait.

Just what Tracie Thomas has in mind.

It is her job to feed the schoolchildren of Compton, a district where nearly all of the 32,500 children qualify for a free lunch (those from families earning no more than 130% of the poverty level) and where some students are homeless.

Some children get themselves up, dressed and out the door without adult help.

Kids have long complained about school lunches. But when students don't eat them, districts lose money. One response has been to offer French fries, pizza or name-brand items — "kid-friendly" food.

Thomas, assistant director of nutrition services in Compton, is among those with another idea.

Last spring, she opened salad bars in five schools, with fruits and vegetables purchased from California farms. Ten schools have salad bars now, and one more opens today. By spring, all 24 elementary campuses are scheduled to have them, with secondary schools to follow.

So far, Thomas is encouraged: More children are choosing salad than traditional school lunch. For example, at one campus the numbers were 266 versus 198 one day, and 257 versus 205 another day.

The salad bars are part of a movement around the country called farm to school. Its advocates, including the federal government, say they hope children will eat more healthful lunches and at the same time improve the health of small and medium-size farms by guaranteeing them customers.

Experts say not even a quarter of children nationwide eat the recommended five servings a day of fruit and vegetables.

With the groundswell of hand-wringing over obesity, childhood diabetes and classroom performance, improving food at school seems an obvious answer.

When Tommie Callegari, Compton's director of student nutrition services, asked teachers in August at a nutrition seminar who believed their students performed to their potential, not one hand went up.

She guessed that half of Compton's students skipped breakfast.

"Have you ever been on your way to school and found all those kids packed into the liquor store? What are they buying? Candy and soda," she said.

For years, "school lunch was very much the last priority" behind class size, test scores and other matters, Marion Kalb, national director of the Farm to School Program, said in an interview.

In fact, many schools don't have working kitchens; lunches prepared in central kitchens are trucked in to be distributed and eaten in lunch periods that many consider too short.

Recently, "schools have become a lightning rod," Kalb said.

The Los Angeles Unified School District has banned soda in vending machines. Some campuses give children time to eat breakfast at school.

Salad bars are available in schools in Santa Monica, Davis and Berkeley in California and hundreds of other communities around the country.

Nine percent of U.S. public schools offer a daily salad bar — not necessarily direct from farms — that provides an entire meal, not just a side dish, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report issued in 2002. There are fewer salad bars in poor schools and in urban schools, the study said.

In Compton, a $2-million federal grant helps pay for a harvest-of-the-month lesson, chef visits, school gardens, tastings, and lessons in science, math or reading that are based on food.

Why is school food so important?

For one thing, eating patterns are formed in childhood, experts say.

For another, Kalb said, in places where school lunches are healthful and there are complementary lessons, children eat more fruit and vegetables.

"Especially for low-income kids, school food is really the majority of their nutritional base," said Anupama Joshi, program manager for the California Farm to School Program at the Center for Food and Justice at Occidental College. "They're not getting better food at home."

In some ways, Compton is lucky. It has equipped and staffed school kitchens, so cafeteria workers can prepare food for salad bars and make sure that children don't limit their choices to croutons and ranch dressing.

"Why don't children eat well?" Callegari asked. "Because they eat by example…. Children don't do the shopping; they don't do the selecting. We do — the adults do."

Not so at the salad bars, and that turns out to be part of their charm.

"At this age, their independence means a lot to them. They talk about what they had on the salad bar, what they ate," said Tamaran Vaughn, a first-grade teacher at Caldwell Elementary School.

Thomas came to Compton last November from the Santa Monica school district, where a farmers market salad bar began in 1997 in McKinley Elementary School at the urging of a parent.

That parent was Robert Gottlieb, director of the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental, who brought commitment and grant money along with his complaints.

The program grew to include the whole district. But Santa Monica has thriving farmers markets — ready supplies and suppliers.

Compton has no farmers market, but Thomas works with a farmer she knew in Santa Monica who delivers food from a cooperative of farmers twice a week to Compton.

Thomas also uses commodity foods, surplus produce, cheese, meat and other items from the USDA. They help enable the salad bar to meet federal nutritional requirements for school lunches — and keep the cost down.

School districts expect their food service departments to be self-sufficient. They get reimbursed through the National School Lunch Program — which serves 26 million children a day — this fiscal year, at $2.19 for each free meal they serve.

In Santa Monica, a salad bar lunch was 40 cents cheaper to provide than the standard hot lunch, Thomas said. She expects to do as well in Compton, where hot lunches run $1.18 apiece.

Thomas is used to crunching numbers, having logged 17 years in the food industry — many of them in fast food.

"I feel like my work is rewarding. I'm making a difference in kids' lives," she said in an interview in her office. "Before, I was contributing to the destruction of kids' lives."

The changes in Compton may not be as dramatic, but they are steady, she said.

In September, some fifth-graders wrote to Latonya Marlow, cafeteria supervisor at Caldwell Elementary, to say how much they wanted a salad bar.

"The hot lunch doesn't give us enough nutrition to run around and play; even walking around feels hard with no nutrition from what we just ate. Sometimes we throw it away. Yesterday's pear was a healthy fruit, right, but they were all old!" Stephanny Peralta wrote.

At Frances Willard Elementary School, a kid-size royal blue salad bar sits in the cafeteria, near a kitchen that feeds 480 children a day. There were cucumbers, grapes, lettuce, oranges, turkey, peanuts, milk.

"I always get salad bar because they have good stuff like oranges, pickles, yogurt," said 7-year-old Oscar Sibrian. "And you can make up your own choice."