Tom Stenzel, United Fresh Produce Association
Tom Stenzel, United Fresh Produce Association

I had the opportunity a few weeks ago to visit a school in Detroit where we had just donated a salad bar through the Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools campaign, with the generous support of Dole and Meijer.

As happens time and again when I visit a school with a salad bar, I watched these kids go through the lunch line with a smile on their faces, making their own choices and piling on their plates a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables from the salad bar.

These were kids who may not have known that the U.S. Department of Agriculture says we should all be eating “half a plate” in fruits and vegetables — they just liked the taste and experience of the fresh foods being offered.

I was personally inspired once again, and returned to Washington, D.C., ever more motivated to keep up our passion for transforming kids’ school meals, bringing every child in America the best quality produce ever.

But back in the trenches of D.C. politics, I was dismayed to hear some pushback on the new school meal regulations that call for adding an additional half-cup of fruits or vegetables at breakfast and lunch.

It seems some schools districts are finding that too difficult, and have started telling members of Congress to roll back that rule. USDA reports more than 90% of schools nationwide are already complying with this rule, but that doesn’t stop some from complaining that kids don’t want an extra half-cup of fruits and vegetables.

It’s frustrating, but it seems the more we make progress on simple things like a half-cup more fruits and vegetables, the more competitive interests try to protect their own turf.

There’s no question that much of this pushback is coming from food companies that don’t want to see school menus change, despite the need to improve kids’ health.

We recognize that schools are being asked to make significant improvements in meals, with very little money to do so.

The last child nutrition legislation only added 6 cents per meal to support these changes, and they need more.

There’s no question that most schools across the country are doing a fantastic job feeding kids on such low budgets.

I also had the opportunity last week to visit our old friends in the New York City school food administration. Many readers may recall several years ago when two leaders from New York City schools came to the United Fresh convention and talked about their goals with salad bars in schools.

I’m happy to report that New York City now has salad bars in just about every school, serving almost 1 million kids every day.

That is an inspiration!

So, how do we reconcile these two facts — schools with salad bars having great success while we hear horror stories elsewhere that kids don’t want even a half-cup of fruits and vegetables?

I believe it has to do with our offer to the kids. Are they getting a variety of great-tasting fresh fruits and veggies on their lunch line, or are they getting another scoop of something put on their plate whether they want it or not?

I have never seen a school with a salad bar that has a hard time getting kids to take, eat and enjoy enough fresh fruits and vegetables to comply with the school meals rules.

That’s why United Fresh is launching a new Fresh Produce Pavilion at the School Nutrition Association annual convention and expo in Boston this summer.

We are creating a 1,600-square-foot pavilion that will include exhibits from many of our members, but also training for school foodservice directors.

We’ll have demonstration salad bars, displays of fresh and fresh-cut product offerings that can facilitate school meals, and a team of produce experts on hand ready to consult with schools on how to maximize their success.

Many thanks to Monterey, Calif.-based Pro*Act for helping staff the pavilion with experts in produce distribution to schools.

Our goal with the pavilion is to help schools figure this out. Perfecting the fresh produce supply chain isn’t easy, but the challenge is worth it when you see the smiles on kids’ faces with fresh produce not only meeting the half-a-plate goal but exceeding it.

We’re also working to bring more funding to schools to help them achieve success. Just last week, new legislation was introduced in Congress to increase funding for cafeteria equipment, refrigeration, salad bars and the like — all in an effort to facilitate schools’ efforts to serve more fresh produce.

We’re going to be supporting that legislation strongly.

So for those who seem to only want to go backward, I have one thing to say: Not a chance.

We are changing the way kids in America eat, and that’s a mission that won’t be slowed down by just a few who can’t see the future.

Tom Stenzel is president and chief executive officer of the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association.

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