Homer Simpson once famously said that one cannot win friends with salad.
But since Feb. 4, two New Haven public schools have been trying to prove him wrong. The schools’ effort is part of the “Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools” program, a new nationwide initiative aimed at lowering child obesity rates that started last November, that is helping to raise funds so that participating schools can offer salad bars in addition to standard lunchtime cafeteria fare. Administrators hope this move will stimulate student interest in healthy, sustainable eating, said Timothy Cipriano, the executive director of food services for New Haven Public Schools.
“We hope to change the way children and their families look at food,” he said.
The program targets school districts that have a high percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced lunches and the necessary resources to offer a daily salad selection, said Patrick Delaney, the communications director for the United Fresh Produce Association. He said that so far, more than 500 schools across the country have participated, and the project hopes to reach another 5500 schools over the next three years.
In New Haven, only two schools — Mauro-Sheridan Science, Technology, and Communications School and Barnard Environmental Studies School — have implemented the program. However, the campaign website said that as of Sunday, 33 more New Haven elementary and middle schools have already applied to qualify for funds. Each salad bar costs approximately $2,500, Delaney said.
“Kids like to feel that they’re able to make, on some level, their own choices, and that’s what a salad bar does,” he said.
Cipriano and Barnard Environmental Studies School Principal Michael Crocco intend to use the salad bars as a tool to make students more conscious about the origins of the food they eat, promoting an attitude of culinary sustainability that they can take beyond the classroom and the cafeteria.
“Children are in school to learn; [and] the cafeterias are extensions of the classrooms,” said Cipriano, “The response has been very good so far.”
Crocco agreed, saying that his students are so enthusiastic about the new menu item that cafeteria staff has had to warn students against taking too much salad.
Mauro-Sheridan and Barnard, who had already requested more opportunities to offer fresh produce, were two schools already in a position to implement the changes.
“We have a huge garden and a wide variety of things that we grow, so we wanted a salad bar so that we could utilize what we were growing,” said Crocco, adding that the salad bar meshes well with his school’s focus on environmental stewardship.
United Fresh, along with NatureSeal, a food preservative company based in Westport, Conn., approached Cipriano and offered to pay for the installation of salad bars in the two schools.
The program’s website said that the salad program was started last year by a group of national non-profit organizations and produce industry associations — which includes the United Fresh Produce Association and NatureSeal — and is intended to complement First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign against childhood obesity.
The program comes on the heels of the report from Pres. Barack Obama’s Task Force on Childhood Obesity, which found last May that one in three American children is overweight or obese and that less than 50 percent of children eat their daily requirement of fruits and vegetables. The task force specifically recommended cafeteria salad bars as a means of combating the obesity epidemic. A 2007 study by the University of California, Los Angeles found that children eat more vegetables when given the opportunity to choose which ones they eat. Crocco said he has seen this phenomenon in action already.
“If they know … they have the option of just taking the things they like, they are more apt to go through [their salads],” he said.
The New Haven Public Schools system enrolls 21,000 students across 45 schools.