From Chop’t to School Lunchrooms

By Julia Yao

With the love that salad chains like Chop’t and Sweet Greens are receiving in major cities like New York City and Washington D.C., salads are enjoying their status as not just a forgettable side dish, but an enjoyable main course. Check out a location during the weekday lunch hour, and you’ll find a line that spills onto the street. What is making these chains so successful that people are willing to wait up to, kid you not, thirty minutes for a customized bowl of raw vegetables?

Messages telling us to eat a balanced diet with plenty of vegetables, proteins, and whole grains are pervasive throughout our communities. For those of you who can afford it, a meal at Chop’t is a low-stakes way to take part in the world of “healthy eating.” If you don’t like it, don’t go back. More importantly, it gives you the opportunity to choose, among an array of healthy options, the things that you know you actually like. You can choose every component – the grains, the vegetables, the protein, and the dressing – and if you decide that you want to throw in potato chips as a treat, go ahead. Because it is low-stakes, it also offers you the opportunity to try new things. Maybe one day, you decide to try kale to see what all the hype is about. Or that new super grain, quinoa. Or maybe you decide to give broccoli another try, because your taste buds have change.

In a country obsessed with choices, choices, and more choices, salad bars are making people question why they ever bothered with pre-packaged ones that often contained items they didn’t want.

Why do we assume adults know what types of vegetables they like and give them the benefit of choice, but we often assume that if children don’t eat a vegetable, it means that they don’t like to eat any vegetables? Here’s a thought. What if we present school children with the same Chop’t salad bar? Do you think they will walk away saying, “No, thank you” to all the options available to them?

The answer is simple. Children are no different from adults in this regard – they have their likes and dislikes. If they are given a prepackaged meal with things that they dislike, they are most likely not going to enjoy it; but if they are given the vegetables they do like, they are much more likely to like it in its entirety.

When it comes to school lunches, many barriers – among which are budget constraints, lack of human resources, lack of political will – force schools into a lunch menu that lacks variety and choice of healthy, tasty options. The problem with this model is that it assumes that if children don’t like the only vegetables presented to them, then they don’t like vegetables at all.

At the same time school children are lacking choices of healthy options, they are also inundated with unhealthy ones. Private companies, usually large food conglomerates and fast food chains, sign contracts with school to sell “competitive items” on school’s “A La Carte” menu. From this menu, students can purchase cheap fast meals, like pizza and hotdogs, and processed snacks, like chips and candy. Students, therefore, do have options. The problem is that the choice is not between healthy ones, but between healthy and unhealthy items. This has huge implications for students’ health and development of lifetime eating patterns.

This is why Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools (LMSBS) is taking the Chop’t model of choice to the school lunchroom. In support of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move Campaign, the program was founded in 2010 through the collaboration of Chef Ann Foundation, National Fruit and Vegetable Alliance, United Fresh Produce Association Foundation, and Whole Foods. It was founded on the idea that children have their preferences as well as the ability to develop preferences in the lunchroom, so if they have the room to decide for themselves, they will be more likely to take and consume the vegetables of their choosing. The program’s mission is to implement salad bars in every school that wants one.

The main barriers to implementing salad bars in every American school are lack of human and financial resources. Many don’t have the ability to store, prep, and serve fresh food. LMSBS, thereby, engages the whole community in fundraising, advertising, and implementation efforts. Through the organization’s website, both educators and parents can take the first step by applying for a salad bar to be donated to their school. The community can take action by donating to a general fund that goes towards supporting salad bars across the nation or a specific fund directed towards supporting their own school district. Blog posts also engage the community in a larger conversation about healthy eating and how to provide children with food they actually want to eat.

The program has shown to be hugely beneficial through both research studies and from on-the-ground anecdotes. An evidence-based program, studies have shown that that giving students the option to choose from a variety of fresh produce significantly increases their overall consumption of fruits and vegetables; it increases the variety they try; it helps students develop longer lasting habits of eating fruits and vegetables; it reduces school food waste because students can take as much as they would actually like to eat; and it supports local agriculture, since schools can directly partner with local farms and producers to fill their salad bars with fresh produce.

Anecdotally, it has strong support from nearly all stakeholders: students, teachers, parents, farmers, school district officials, and the White House. The program helps jumpstart the conversation about what it means to really provide healthy school meals that are both tasty and nutritious for students; it provides the space and opportunity to encourage students to try new fruits and vegetables; teachers love that they can chat with students about the types of fruits and vegetables they like and then continue the conversation in the lunchroom by encouraging students to choose the foods they like from the salad bar.

School meal programs are sometimes so focused on the nutritional content of food that they forgo children’s diverse taste preferences. Like adults, children are obsessed with choices, choices, and more choices. They like having the opportunity to choose what they prefer and the room to try, or not try, new foods.

In the end, LMSBS is much more than simply feeding children salad. It infuses a culture of loving good food in the school setting, which has the potential to encourage healthy eating habits beyond the lunchroom. It’s a way to help students develop their taste preferences and the room to try new things. It’s a way to help shape lifetime eating habits that will positively impact wellbeing.

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