Salad Bars Work to Help Kids Make Good Food Choices

Incorporating salad bars into school lunches gives children daily access to fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and healthy proteins, offering them not only variety, but also choice. When offered healthy food choices, children respond by trying new items, incorporating greater variety into their diets, and increasing their daily intake of fruits and vegetables. Through these early, positive experiences, students are better prepared for a lifetime of healthy eating.

For this reason, salad bar and farm to school programs work hand-in-hand. A survey of recipient schools showed that 78% of schools that implemented salad bars increased their purchase of fresh fruits and vegetables. Salad bars give schools the opportunity to develop relationships with local farmers, improving the quality and freshness of the produce they serve and opening up new avenues for teaching kids about where their food comes from and how to make healthy choices. Nationwide, 62% of school districts with farm to school programs operate salad bars, often stocked with local options.

Let’s Move Salad Bars to School

Interested in getting a salad bar for your school? Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools launched in 2010 with the mission of donating salad bars to U.S. schools and has since donated over 4,100 salad bars to schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program, serving more than two million students!

We started a farm to school program last year by implementing salad bars in 25 of our 27 schools. The salad bar at one of our middle schools inspired the horticulture class to begin growing produce for the school cafeteria.

Conejo Valley Unified School District, CA

Other Great Strategies for Transforming the Cafeteria

A student’s experience in the cafeteria—how and where food is displayed, how they are greeted and seated, and what learning opportunities are available--can have a big impact on the foods they put on their plates and in their mouths. Well-placed and well-stocked salad bars are a proven strategy for improving fruit and vegetable consumption and a natural complement to farm to school activities.

Other tactics for transforming the school cafeteria include:

  • Conducting student taste tests (offering students an opportunity to sample and provide feedback on foods and recipes before they appear on the lunch line);
  • Using cafeteria food coaches (student or adult ambassadors who point children to healthy choices as they move through the lunch line);
  • Marketing and promoting local foods (like Harvest of the Month Programs, which feature a different local food every month and are often accompanied by classroom lessons or take-home materials for parents);
  • Decorating the cafeteria with attractive signage and posters to promote healthy eating (visit Team Nutrition’s Graphics Library and Resource Library for free graphics, posters, and images).

Employing Smarter Lunchroom Strategies

Another evidence-based practice referred to as the Smarter Lunchroom Movement uses the principles of behavioral economics to influence meal choices. Strategies are simple. Move whole fruit close to the cash register so students can grab a healthy option just before they check out. Name the vegetables – instead of just ‘broccoli’ offer ‘Farmer Bob’s Best Broccoli.’ According to USDA Farm to School Census data, 31% of school districts engaged in farm to school activities employ Smarter Lunchroom strategies in their school cafeterias.

Instead of an ice cream social, we have a "lettuce party" where our elementary students get to enjoy the fresh vegetables they grew in their gardens. They love this event! Healthy celebrations helped to change our elementary school culture.

Walpole Public School District, MA

All of the lunchroom solutions that the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement endorses have been studied and proven effective in a wide variety of schools across the nation. Here are some quick take-aways from the Smarter Lunchroom Movement:

  • Moving and highlighting fruit can increase sales of fruit by up to 102%
  • Naming vegetables can increase selection of vegetables from between 40% - 70%
  • Placing white milk first in lunchroom coolers can result in an increase of up to 46% in white milk sales
  • The first highlighted entrée on the lunch line has an 11% advantage over the second option

USDA offers numerous resources on this promising practice here

Many Tactics Promote Healthy Eating

Like a salad bar with multiple options, school districts with farm to school programs employ many tactics for encouraging healthy eating. Census results show districts used the following strategies to promote local foods and encourage healthy eating: