Each day in Riverside County, Calif., 43,000 students pass by a salad bar where they are encouraged to “eat their colors” — to make a meal from beautifully presented seasonal produce, grown mostly by California growers.

The result is more fruit and vegetable consumption among students who are also developing healthy eating habits that hopefully will last a lifetime.

The salad bars are part of Riverside’s district-wide farm-to-school program and reflect a trend toward healthy kids’ menus at schools and in restaurants. Similar efforts nationwide have been sparked by increased rates of childhood obesity and related scrutiny of what children eat outside the home.

A 2012 study in the journal Childhood Obesity found in two-thirds of the 50 largest chain restaurants, none of the kid’s meals met nutritional standards for calories, salt, sugar and fats.

Operators are taking note.

McDonald’s changed its Happy Meals in March 2012 by adding apple slices, reducing the portion size of fries and switching to lower-fat milk.

Produce earns place in healthy kids mealsJust this month in Texas, McDonald’s is test-marketing Happy Meals with Cuties mandarins. Subway kids meals now include apple slices, and apple juice or milk as sides (with no substitutes).

Darden Restaurants joined the Partnership for a Healthier America in 2011. At its family-focused units, including Olive Garden and Red Lobster, children’s menus now offer 1% milk as the default beverage and a fruit or vegetable as a default side.

Silver Diner, a 15-store chain in the Northeast, overhauled its menu with healthier, kids-tested menu items, and credits the changes with a 25% comparable store sales increase.

School foodservice is also evolving, spurred in part by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s School Nutrition Service recently reported 80% of schools are meeting the new standards.

In December, USDA increased funding for its successful “Farm to Schools” program, which promotes bringing locally or regionally produced foods into cafeterias and educational activities like school gardens, farm visits and cooking classes.

In Riverside, director of nutrition services Rodney Taylor said he originally started the program with three goals: to give kids more access to fruits and vegetables, to show eating behaviors could be modified and to provide a market for the small farmer.

A key component of the program is offering fresh produce in a way that is compelling to kids.

“The salad bar has to appeal to all the senses,” Taylor said.

“Sometimes parents ask ‘how did you get my kids to eat fruits and vegetables?’ When they see the salad bar, they understand.”

Taylor points out that often students are eating fruits and vegetables that have been harvested within 48 hours, and while more preparation may be needed by staff at schools, it’s done through focus on the end goal: improving health and combating childhood obesity.

(Interested in learning more about the Farm-to-School program? USDA offers a series of Web seminars until June of this year.)

As schools and restaurant operators continue to promote healthy eating among kids, the time is right for grower-shippers to jump in.

Start with what the consumer sees. Familiarize yourself with kids’ menus at local independent restaurants and national chains.

How would your products fit those menus? How would further processing, new packaging or creative partnerships improve their chances? What produce is currently working on the kids menu and why? How can your products follow suit?

If you don’t eat your products raw, you can bet kids won’t either. It’s critical for grower-shippers to research and promote flavor-boosting cooking techniques. Consider conducting your own taste tests with kids.

Once you’ve completed the R&D, don’t skimp on how you present it. Are your communications easy to read and easily posted in a busy kitchen? Are they offered in multiple languages?

Do you know at least one head chef in your area? A conversation with folks on the front line will yield insights into the local opportunities and barriers.

For schools, focus on crops whose supplies will be plentiful and prices moderate. Talk to your local school foodservice director to learn about his or her needs.

Also, think about how you can form partnerships beyond the lunchroom. Can you offer tours of your local farm? Can you help educate students about how produce is grown, or how to cook and eat it?

Healthy kids’ meals was the fourth most-predicted trend for 2014, while children’s nutrition took seventh place, according to a National Restaurant Association study. And when study participants were asked what trend will dominate 10 years from now, health/nutrition was listed third after environmental sustainability and local sourcing.

Strike while the industry is highly motivated to increase sales by helping families make healthier choices.

Tim York is CEO of Salinas, Calif., Markon Cooperative, made up of eight North American foodservice distributors. Centerplate is a monthly column offering a peek at “what’s now and next” for foodservice and the implications for the produce industry. E-mail timy@markon.com.

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