I write a lot about the importance of healthy school meals in The Inside Track (just see the item below). But rarely do I or any of my colleagues actually leave our comfortable confines in downtown Washington to see (and taste) some of those good-for-you school meals.
Until last week, that is.
On Thursday, I joined PreventObesity.net’s Customer Relations Manager Zach Brooks at Eastern High School to volunteer for the D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) “Eat More Salad” initiative
. Eastern is one of 10 DCPS campuses that introduced salad bars this school year, part of the district’s impressive effort to revamp school menus.
DCPS already is serving more locally-grown fruits and vegetables and does not serve sugar-sweetened beverages such as sodas in its cafeterias. But the salad bars are a new addition, and thus required a little extra work.
That’s where community volunteers like Zach and me came in. We were tasked with introducing the salad bars to the students by showing them how to make dishes that meet nutritional requirements. This is important, because it allows students who are eligible for free or reduced-price meals to receive the benefit.
Zach and I were excited to volunteer. Eastern is located in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, just a few blocks away from Zach’s house. One of D.C.’s most historic schools, Eastern underwent a recent renovation, so the cafeteria is full of new equipment and the seating area is spacious.
After we arrived, we went to the cafeteria and met the staff, who were friendly and eager to show us around. We also were given hairnets and T-shirts reading “Eat More Salad” to wear, so the students knew we were part of the cafeteria staff for the day.
Just before the bell rang for lunch, the staff warned us that the students might get rowdy. Apparently when they introduced the salad bar on the first day, it was a bit chaotic.
The staff originally set up the bar so students made their salad and then paid. But that led to many students doing the old dine-and-dash, putting together a salad and then ditching the line. In an effort to avoid this, the staff decided to set up the salad bar so students would pay then create their dish.
Zach and I stood on either side of the bar to monitor the students, helping them choose ingredients to make a balanced meal making sure they took the ingredients while also keeping an eye on what items needed to be replenished at the bar.
The need to think through the logistical requirements for the salad bar is among the things that struck me the most while volunteering. When nutrition advocates think about school meals, it’s often from a big picture sense. We’re focused on how to get more fruits and vegetables into school cafeterias and touting the benefits.
But beyond bringing in the food, there’s a lot of work that must be done in each cafeteria to actually serve the students — like making sure the line for the salad bar moves in an orderly fashion.
As Zach puts it: “It’s been awhile since I was in high school, and I forgot how crazy lunchtime can get.”
Switching the location of the cash register so the students paid before taking their food worked. Once the students arrived, it was an orderly scene. Students moved through the line, with most loading up on romaine lettuce, cucumbers and carrots (and a lot of salad dressing; Zach and I both needed to refill the dressing bottles).
Zach points out that we did more than just restock the lettuce, however. “Having a volunteer presence at the event seemed to encourage curiosity from the students. They saw us in our ‘Eat More Salad’ shirts and asked us questions about the items on the salad bar, especially the jicama.”
Along with that sweet root vegetable, students also took a lot of tofu — it was among the most popular items on the bar. This surprised both of us, as we figured most young teens wouldn’t exactly go nuts for tofu. But a cafeteria chef later explained that they purposely disguised the tofu to look like chicken, a clever way of getting kids to eat healthier.
After the lunch period ended, Zach and I helped the cafeteria staff clean up. We also got to taste-test the salad for ourselves, and were impressed. It rivaled anything we could buy near our downtown office.
Zach and I joked that we wish we could go back, since DCPS switches the items on the salad bar daily so students stay interested. “Some of the salads they’re serving for lunches sound great, especially Mexican Caesar day. Shrimp and avocado, wow,” Zach says.
Zach and I left Eastern impressed with the salad bar. It really seemed like the students enjoyed having the healthier option, and the salad bar would remain popular year-round.
“It was great to see a school lunch first hand. I wish we had a salad bar when I was in high school,” Zach says. “All we had were chicken and shredded cheese over iceberg lettuce."