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Making Fruits and Vegetables “Foods of Convenience”

The Salad Bar in Every School campaign is a major initiative for the United Fresh Produce Association this year, and attendees had a good opportunity to hear about the program’s potential during Wednesday morning’s breakfast session.

Chef Jorge Collazo and CEO Eric Goldstein from NYC SchoolFood—the division of the New York City Department of Education responsible for the city’s school meals programs—talked to the audience about some of the things they have done during the past five years to transform the foods available to their city’s kids. Changes included switching the name from the Office of School Food Nutritional Services to the simpler “NYC SchoolFood.” Changing staff uniforms from institutional white to maroon and khaki, and hiring an executive chef.

“We wanted to focus on treating our kids like customers rather than inmates,” Goldstein joked.

One of the biggest changes, though, was installing self-service salad bars stocked with produce.

“Salad bars are key to our entire initiative … that was the first imperative that we got involved with,” said Collazo.

They quickly found that kids, from elementary school through high school, will regularly use these salad bars with little or no urging if the fresh fruits and vegetables are simply available.

“We strive to make fresh fruits and vegetables ‘foods of convenience,’ and that’s an important turn of phrase,” said Goldstein. “That’s something we thought a lot about for New York City’s schoolchildren. They’re going to eat what is available to them.”

It’s hard to imagine United Fresh launching this initiative at a more appropriate time. First Lady Michelle Obama has made the fight against childhood obesity one of her signature issues, and federal Child Nutrition programs are up for Reauthorization this year. Despite Washington’s highly partisan atmosphere, it’s tough to imagine anyone opposing the idea of making more fresh fruits and vegetables available to kids during their school lunches.

For retailers, these types of programs may also prove to be important down the road. Kids get into eating habits when they’re young. Give them an opportunity to enjoy fresh produce early on, and they’re much more likely to continue eating lots of produce as they get older. And, by all accounts, programs like these are proving that kids really do enjoy fruits and vegetables when they are given a choice at school.