More than 60% of 1,100 school districts polled this year offer salad or produce bars, according to a national survey from the School Nutrition Association.

In a report called “State of School Nutrition 2014,” the National Harbor, Md.-based group reported 63% of school districts report offering salad or produce bars, while 69% offer pre-packaged salads. The survey also found that 52% of districts surveyed serve locally sourced fruits and vegetables, up from 48% in 2011.

A variety of methods are being employed to lure kids to try healthy food options, according to the survey. Student taste testing of new menu items is attempted in 64% of school districts surveyed, and 55% offer nutrition education in the classroom, according to the release. Other measures being used include:

  • 37.5% of districts say Farm to School initiatives are currently underway in their districts, up from 32% in 2011;
  • 35% of districts currently have school gardens, up from 22% in 2011; and
  • 24% of districts currently participate in the HealthierUS School Challenge, up from 21% in 2011.

While schools are expanding healthy options and nutrition education, many districts still fight with decreased school lunch participation at all grade levels, according to the release. USDA data shows school lunch participation is down in 49 states, with more than one million fewer students choosing school lunch each day, according to the release. The State of School Nutrition survey revealed the average daily participation in school lunches declined from 68% in the 2011 survey to 64% in 2014.

“School meal programs are not only offering healthier fare, they are also finding creative ways to encourage students to try all the fruits, vegetables, whole grains and other nutritious choices in the cafeteria,” School Nutrition Association President Julia Bauscher said in the release. “Unfortunately, despite efforts to promote healthier meals, fewer students are choosing school lunch under the new nutrition standards, and that’s a huge concern for school nutrition professionals, already struggling to manage the high cost of meeting complex regulations.”

Bauscher said in the release that USDA should provide schools with more flexibility under the nutrition regulations.

Among other recommendations, the School Nutrition Association has asked Congress to eliminate the requirement that students must take a fruit or vegetable as part of a reimbursable breakfast and/or lunch. The group has cited a study in Public Health and Nutrition that found the mandate to serve fruits and vegetables results in a nearly 100% increase in wasted fruits and vegetables or $3.8 million thrown into the trash each day.

Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations with the School Nutrition Association, said it is uncertain when Congress will consider making changes to school nutrition standards.

Using salad bars is one way for school districts to increase student participation in school meals, said Lorelei DiSogra, vice president of nutrition and health for United Fresh Produce Association.

A recent survey of nearly 400 school districts that have received salad bars in the Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools campaign revealed that most schools report that salad bars increased student participation in school meals, she said.

The CDC reported survey responses from 357 school districts in 36 states that received salad bars in the initiative revealed that 57% of school districts reported increased student participation in school lunches with the addition of salad bars. The CDC also said 78% of districts reported purchasing more fruits and vegetables as a result of salad bar implementation. More than 3,400 salad bars have been donated to more than 1,000 school districts across the country since the initiative launched in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Pratt-Heavner said the SNA survey did not ask districts whether salad bars improved participation in school lunches.

“We definitely have seen an increase in salad bar use among our members as a way to give kids more choices and allow them to self serve and have a few more options,” she said. Some districts have offer packaged salads if students are pressed for time during the lunch period, she said.