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.
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.