A Farm-to-school Salad Bar Changes School Meals for One Food Service Director

Food service director Rodney Taylor didn’t believe his students would choose healthy options at lunch until he saw it for himself.

A Farm-to-school Salad Bar Changes School Meals for One Food Service Director

The Salad Bar Man

Rodney Taylor asks his audience to picture the scene at an elementary school salad bar:

"The kindergartners are in line, as cute as they can be. They've cleaned their little hands and lined up on both sides of the self-serve bar. First there's green lettuce fresh from local farmers, cherry tomatoes, broccoli — chopped so it's user-friendly for the small kids, cauliflower, and cucumbers. Then there's turkey ham, turkey, yogurt, cottage cheese. And the fruits — plums, watermelon, pears. Imagine the color, the crispness because it was delivered from the farm and cut up just this morning. By the end of the line, you've seen a young kid build this beautiful, colorful salad. And you've seen a five-year-old learning to become a lifelong healthy eater.

"We hope each kid will have access to this kind of meal in the very near future," continues Taylor, who directs nutrition services in the Riverside, California, Unified School District, where he serves three-quarters of a million farm-to-school salad bar lunches a year.

Taylor's groundbreaking salad bar work has won him widespread recognition, including a Regional Social Justice Award, praise from the American Cancer Society, and appointment to the University of California President's Advisory Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources. But he admits that he was a reluctant convert to the notion of salad bars as a school lunch centerpiece. "You're looking at an inner city kid," he says. "Do you really think I dreamed about being a salad bar man? That is not what I grew up wanting to be."

The Power of One Persistent Parent

Taylor's salad bar conversion illustrates the impact one parent can have. In 1997, Taylor directed food and nutrition services with the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, when a district parent named Bob Gottlieb approached him. Gottlieb applauded the presence of salad bars in the district, but was dismayed that his daughter would not eat at her school's, with its processed fruit from a can, white and filmy carrots, and lettuce and celery that were turning brown. Why not buy from local farmers, asked Gottlieb. Why not buy from the local farmers' market?

"He pitched the idea of supporting local farmers, and I can tell you, that was the furthest thing from my mind," Taylor says now. He was positive it wouldn't work. Gottlieb is a professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles and director of the Urban Environmental Policy Institute, though Taylor didn't know that at the time. "I thought he was just another affluent parent with a little too much time on his hands." Taylor assumed that Gottlieb, like most of the rest, would go away when his idea wasn't immediately embraced. Instead, he kept coming back, politely but persistently presenting the case for farm-fresh food and asking, "What can I do to help?"

Taylor finally gave in and agreed to a two-week trial during a summer childcare class. "I just knew that four-year-olds were not going to eat this food," he recalls. "When I walked in the first day and saw the youngsters grabbing food off the salad bar, I was changed forever. I didn't even need to go back the next day."

The new convert became a farm-to-school salad bar evangelist. The Occidental College Community Food Security Project helped secure a start-up grant from the California Endowment and found farmers willing to give discounts to launch a pilot in one school. Taylor also "marketed like mad." He brought salad bar samples to parent back-to-school nights, offered discount coupons to attract teachers, and preached his new gospel to principals and PTAs. The next year, the district secured a state grant to expand the program into less-affluent schools, and Taylor persuaded PTAs at better-off schools to commit $5,000 a year for two years, promising them that the program would be self-supporting after that.

He also turned to PTAs for volunteers. When farm-to-school programs are implemented, the food frequently costs less than processed, pack- aged, and trucked-in alternatives. On the other hand, labor costs go up. "Had we not had parent volunteers, I wouldn't be talking today about the farm-to-school program," says Taylor. "It was the parents that came in that first year and did all of the chopping and everything else that needed to be done."

The salad bars competed successfully with pizza and sloppy joes. At some schools, average salad bar participation was 10 times what it had been the year before. The program expanded to every school in the district and became almost completely self-supporting, as Taylor had promised. It also extended beyond the lunchroom to include school gardens, classroom visits by chefs, and field trips to farms and the farmers' market.

Running the Food Service as a Business

In 2002, Taylor moved from the affluent Santa Monica-Malibu district to Riverside, a district with high needs, where he felt he could make an impact. Fifty-three percent of Riverside students came from at-risk homes. Riverside had no farmers' market offering access to fresh food, so he had to locate and negotiate with local farmers. Most parents worked and weren't free to volunteer. PTAs weren't able to make sizeable contributions. The food service was in debt.

"When I said I'm going to put salad bars in all the elementary schools, people who knew the challenges laughed and said, 'This isn't Santa Monica-Malibu.' But I knew from Santa Monica that the salad bar creates a kind of excitement, that once you get it going, it's a vehicle that drives itself. The custodians were talking to each other and saying it's not the mess that they think it is. One principal started talking about it, and then it was two, and then three, and now I've got principals jockeying to get up the list for salad bars."

Taylor is often asked how much it costs to add a salad bar program. He says that that's the wrong question. Instead, the food service as a whole — both expenses and income — needs to be thought of as a business. Many food service directors are nutritionists by training or have always worked in school programs. Taylor feels that those like himself, with backgrounds in marketing and private industry, may be better at seeing the school food service as a business that must constantly redefine itself, understand its competition, and respond to its customers. "We talk a lot about growing our business," he says. "At first, no one truly understood what I was talking about. They said, 'Wait a minute, our enrollment is declining.' I said, 'We feed 51 percent of our 43,000 kids. That means 21,000 a day who aren't eating with us.'"

Today, the food service feeds 65 percent of Riverside's students. Taylor is still marketing like mad: soliciting students' preferences, holding tastings of new items, taking the extra effort to make the salad bar user-friendly by cutting whole apples, oranges, and broccoli into bite-sized pieces that small children can manage. He also refuses to be a food purist. "Those items that children like, that you and I grew up with, don't kill us. They'll draw kids into the cafeteria. So I advocate keeping the hamburgers and corn dogs and hot dogs, but once they pick up the hot dog, they pick up the rest of their meal at the salad bar, so they get a well-balanced meal and their minimum of fruits and vegetables."

He also targets teachers. "One of the huge benefits of the salad bar is that I'm getting ten to fifteen teachers at a school where they didn't used to eat at all. We're talking about maybe $13,000 times thirty-two schools. But here's something even more important. When children see fifteen teachers a day eating at the salad bar, that sends a powerful message. And then on back-to-school night when a parent asks a teacher, 'Should I pack my kid a sack lunch this year?' the teacher can say, 'Oh, no, we have an internationally famous salad bar. I eat there myself.'"

How else to grow the business? The Riverside Meals on Wheels program was being serviced by a private company that raised its prices more than 60 percent. "I read in the newspaper that Meals on Wheels had predicted they'd be bankrupt within a year. So I took that article to my boss and said, 'We can make a little money, and look like heroes doing it.' And that's exactly what is happening. We service twenty accounts — little private schools, for-profits, and nonprofits. During a time of declining enrollment, our participation is growing, because of the dollars that we find within the community."

Treating the food service as a whole system underwrites the costs of buying and preparing fresh salad bar food. "If you ask me, 'Does the salad bar pay for itself? Does it make money?' I don't know that it does in and of itself, but that wasn't my intention. My intention was to get your kid at five, and teach her to be a lifelong healthy eater. Now the extra money that I'm going to spend on that is the price to bring healthy food in. The extra work that we do is our commitment to serving our kids the very best that we can. I tell my employees we serve more than food. We serve love. I like to think of the salad bars as one of my greatest expressions of love to the kids. There's nothing like walking into a store in your community and having some- one say, 'I know you. You're the salad bar man.' That's pretty cool to me."

This essay is adapted from Michael K. Stone, Smart by Nature: Schooling for Sustainability (Watershed Media/University of California Press, 2009).