Are SALAD BARS in schools a good idea?


October 8, 2012 by amittnac

In an effort to fight child overweight and obesity, schools across the country are looking for ways to increase F&V consumption in children. Many schools have started using stand-alone salad bars as a way to provide students with more options/increase consumption… yet, some school administrators and parents wonder if salad bars are a cost-effective and/or sanitary solution. Are salad bars a good idea?

Salad bars sweep the nation…

One example of a program that aims to increase the number of F&V offered in the lunchroom by providing schools with salad bars is the Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools initiative. The goal of this initiative is to “fund and award 6000 salad bars to schools by the end of 2013.” Any k-12 school that is participating in the national school lunch program (providing at least 100 reimbursable meals per day) is eligible to apply for a Let’s Move salad bar. You may be wondering, why salad bars? Researches have found that children are more likely to try new F&Vs when they are provided with a variety of choices in a F&V salad bar. Currently, 1,454 salad bars have been provided to schools across the country, and it typically takes 5 weeks for a salad bar to arrive at a school after it is funded. Unfortunately,  Salad Bars to Schools currently has “more approved applications then [they] have funds,” so there is a salad bar wait-list (3)…

A salad bar is awarded/purchased… then what…?

What happens once a school receives a Let’s Move salad bar? In addition to providing schools with a salad bar, a Salad Bars to Schools grant pays for cafeteria staff training that explores ways to make children excited about F&V (4). Yet, the question of cost-effectiveness remains: how can schools increase the number of F&V that they provide to students (stock the salad bars that they are given) without breaking the bank? Also, What about sanitation?

Salad Bar at a Burlington VT School (6)

The cost issue…

According to the Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools website, “the cost of maintaining a salad bar depends on a number of factors: the number of fruit, vegetable and protein choices your salad bar offers, where you source your food and how well the food is managed both during preparation and in the daily maintenance of the salad bar during service.” The site goes on to recommend that schools buy produce that is in season and “ USDA commodity foods like diced chicken, cheese, and beans (3).”

The public school district in Burlington, VT has implemented several innovative programs to keeping the cost of providing more F&V down. First, in order to greatly reduced F&V processing costs, they have partnered with a local community grocery store that offers store discounts to community members who volunteer 15 + hours/mo. processing the food (i.e. washing/chopping/storing/ freezing summer crops so that they can used year-round) that is provided at the school salad bars. Also, the schools involve older students in the processing of foods. Second, Burlington schools have replaced other, less healthy foods with F&V (between 2003 and 2008, the amount of money spent on fresh produce was ~$5,000 and $59,000 respectively) (7). Third, Burlington schools have “growing contracts” with 23 local farmers (1).

Students processing food at a Burlington VT School (7)

The sanitation issue…

Serve-yourself food bars are often a cause for concern with regard to sanitation. The thought of hundreds of kids handling serving implements and then putting food in their mouths makes parents and school administrators nervous. To address this issue, a school in St. Paul, MN provides hand sanitizer that children can use before they serve themselves, uses smaller salad bar bins and provides dressing in squeeze bottles in order to minimize mess, and replaces serving utensils multiple times over the course of a meal (5). Moreover, schools in Burlington, VT bring salad bar units into the kindergarten classrooms at the start of the school year so that students can learn about how to use them (i.e. about proper sanitation, how to portion food, etc.)

If you have one, will they come? Children for F&V, that is.

An increase in F&V sales to students is a measurement outcome indicative of school salad bar success.  What can schools do to increase the likelihood that children will buy fresh produce if it is offered?  The Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs at Cornell explored factors that impact the food choices that children make in the lunchroom when left to their own devices. They determined that the following actions result in increased F&V purchasing: charging less for produce than you would for less healthy food, placing salad bars in high traffic areas  (i.e. in front of cash registers), changing the name of items to make them sound more delicious (i.e. call carrots “ x-ray carrots” rather than simply, “carrots”), and giving kids the choice of having/not having F&V (2).

Another way that Burlington, VT schools encourage kids’ consumption of F&V is by involving them in the production/growing of the vegetables that are served with cooking classes at the school and with gardening classes at the Healthy City Youth Farm which is located at a Burlington middle school (1).

Students working on Healthy City Farm in Burlington, VT (8)

So, in response to my question: “ Are school salad bars a good idea?” In my opinion, YES! Salad bars are a WONDERFUL idea for schools that are ready to build relationships with local food producers, to address salad bar sanitation issues, and to increase programs/ use food placement strategies that will increase children’s excitement about F&V.

This video describes the Burlington Food Project:


1. Burlington School Food Project. 2012

2. Getting Kids to Eat Healthy. 2010:

3. Let’s Move: Salad Bars to schools. 2012:

4. Statewide bars promote healthy eating. 2012:

5. A Salad Bar in Every School. 2010:

6. image:

7. image:

8. image:


3 thoughts on “Are SALAD BARS in schools a good idea?

  1. catherinecoughlin says:

    Anne, I loved this post! I had not considered sanitation in my post on salad bars in schools, but what a real concern. The schools you mentioned had great ideas of using squeeze bottles, replacing utensils frequently throughout mealtime, and particularly demonstrating proper salad bar techniques to youngsters before allowing them to use the salad bar…I’m sure we have all witnessed several individuals at the Whole Foods bar (much older than kindergarteners ) who could benefit from a lesson like that.

    I think the most significant element in your response to “Are salad bars a good idea?” is that they are, so long as the school is ready. The issues you mentioned can be real barriers to the successful implementation of a salad bar. Schools should be made aware of these possible restraints and develop plans to overcome potential barriers so that the salad bars have the best possible change of successfully increasing F&V intake among children. Perhaps there should be a “Readiness Assessment” attached to the Let’s Move application so that schools who have proven themselves ready to implement a salad bar have preference in the awarding of the grant.

  2. lizzyannsanders says:

    Anne, thank you for sharing that information about the Burlington Food Project! They seem to have been really successful keeping costs down by building community partnerships. I couldn’t agree with you more about the importance of “readiness” when it comes to a school adopting a salad bar program. The administration of the school has to have the resources, relationships, and energy to pull off a successful salad bar initiative. Unfortunately, this often means that only the schools with the most resources can have a salad bar. Oftentimes, the schools with the most support for salad bars from parents and school board members are also the schools where kids already have pretty good eating habits. Low-income schools could likely benefit the most from these initiatives, since low income areas tend to have higher prevalence of obesity and lower fresh fruit and vegetable consumption. Luckily, studies have already shown that salad bars can increase fruit and vegetable consumption in the low-income schools.* It would have also been interesting to see more evaluation of the Burlington school salad bar program. This program had a lot of innovative features, but did it increase the kids’ fruit and vegetable consumption? Also, it would be interesting to see how this kind of initiative would play out in an inner-city school. It seems like, in the inner-city, it would be much more difficult to build these sorts of relationships with local farms and producers. This may be due to the difficulty of bringing in food from the outskirts of the city or due to the higher costs of produce within larger cities.

    Slusser, et al. A school salad bar increases frequency of fruit and vegetable consumption among children living in low-income households. Public Health Nutr. 2007 Dec;10(12):1490-6. Epub 2007 Jul 5.

  3. blistenfelt says:

    I also agree with Catherine that your point that schools must be ready is incredibly significant. You said that salad bars are a good idea in “schools that are ready to build relationships with local food producers, to address salad bar sanitation issues, and to increase programs/ use food placement strategies that will increase children’s excitement about F&V.” You could not have stated this more perfectly as each of these points are crucial to successful salad bar implementation in schools. Implementing a successful salad bar is much more beneficial that implementing a salad bar. Without success, the program will not be sustainable and other schools will be less willing to install salad bars in their own cafeterias. An unsuccessful school salad bar may also be an additional setback in increasing kids’ fruit and vegetable consumption, particularly if the produce is not fresh, appealing, or otherwise negatively received.

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