SALINAS, Calif. — An early adopter of school salad bars drew praise from a U.S. Department of Agriculture official on a recent visit to Salinas.

“I’m here to say we really appreciate what schools like yours are doing to provide healthier foods to school children,” Kevin Concannon, USDA undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, told second-graders Aug. 30 at Sherwood School.

USDA official praises Salinas schools' salad barsThe Salinas City Elementary School District has salad bars in all 13 of its schools thanks to a program begun seven years ago by parents — many of whom work in agriculture — and supported by grower-shippers.

Concannon and U.S. Rep. Sam Farr, D-Carmel, joined growers and representatives of the United Fresh Produce Association at the school.

A week before the visit, eight schools in the district received a $289,000 USDA grant for produce snacks under the Fresh Fruits and Vegetable Program, said Donna Alonzo Vaughan, district superintendent.

“We have our beautiful salad bars for lunch; now we’ll have fresh fruit and vegetable snacks in the afternoon,” she said.

As he waved the MyPlate dietary guidelines icon before a group of students, Concannon said change is coming to school menus nationwide. He credited the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act signed into law in December. The resulting standards are expected to double the amount of fruits and vegetables served in schools.

Concannon, who oversees a $40 billion purchasing budget, also touted the USDA’s efforts on behalf of locally grown produce.

“We’re also encouraging school systems across the country through an initiative called Farm to School to work with your local farmers,” he said. “A head of lettuce when you eat it fresh tastes that much better than if you try to eat it 20 days out. But basically our overall goal is to try to improve the food environment in schools in the knowledge that it makes a difference in the health of children and their ability to learn.”

“It also will make a difference as adults,” he said. “They will buy more fruits and vegetables. As a country we’re too dependent on overly processed foods.”

USDA official praises Salinas schools' salad barsAs second graders filed from the school’s salad bars to their lunch tables, they chatted with such visitors as Lorri Koster, co-chairman of Mann Packing; and Margaret D’Arrigo-Martin, executive vice president of sales and marketing at D’Arrigo Bros. Co.

“We are on your side,” Koster, who’s also a United Fresh board member, told them later. “We have a movement within the industry called Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools (http://saladbars2schools.org/). My family’s company and many others like it are donating salad bars to schools throughout the country not as fortunate as yours.”

Attending from United Fresh were Lorelei DiSogra, vice president of nutrition and health; and Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy.

Concannon began his day with a tour of a Taylor Farms lettuce harvest plus cooling and processing operations at Mann Packing. After the school event he met privately with grower-shippers, foodservice distributors and nutrition advocates.

“We want to see if there are ways we can work with them to make sure their ability to provide these fruits and vegetables to schools or other government entities is eased,” Concannon said.