( Photo by The Packer staff )

As disastrous as we all know COVID-19 has been to our nation and to the fresh produce industry, the collateral damage still brings me up short.

Take salad bars, for example.

The Salad Bars to Schools nonprofit organization, supported in a big way by United Fresh Foundation and other industry groups, has raised more than $5.6 million to provide nearly 6,000 salad bars to schools. The salad bars have helped school foodservice officials serve nearly 3 million kids more fresh produce.

Salad bars have been one unfailing feel-good focal point of industry efforts to help kids and to boost the long-term health of the produce industry. Tour de Fresh, in 2019 alone, presented a check for about $175,000 to the United Fresh Start Foundation for salad bars. 

During a virtual school foodservice workshop at United Fresh LIVE!, Stephanie Bruce, director of nutrition service for California’s Palm Springs Unified School District, said produce bars won’t be offered next school year because of precautions related to COVID-19.

Palm Springs is not alone, of course.

Recent coverage from thecounter.org, headlined “School lunch as we know it is over. But for school nutrition directors, the lessons keep coming,” examined the new realities for school foodservice. 

One quote from the story: “We know that we will not have salad bars and self-service stations, at least for the foreseeable future,” said Bertrand Weber, director of culinary and wellness services for Minneapolis Public Schools.

It is not just at schools that salad bars have suffered. 

In mid-March, the FDA said this on a Frequently Asked Questions page:

Q: Is it safe to eat from salad bars during the coronavirus outbreak?
A: In communities with sustained transmission of COVID-19, state and local health authorities have implemented social-distancing measures which discourage or prohibit dining in congregate settings. We also recommend discontinuing self-service buffets and salad bars until these measures are lifted.

Now, months later, local economies are beginning to open again. Still, restaurants are being asked to limit the number of patrons at salad bars.

How quickly will salad bars come all the way back? How will the all-important consumer respond to renewed offerings?

Lately, the sentiment about quickly dispatching the threat of COVID-19 has faded. The status of when kids return to schools is unknown in many states. 

Several states are reporting increased numbers of COVID-19 cases, and there is considerably more confidence in Zoom technology than boarding planes for business travel.

Industry support for salad bars for schools has been a “can’t lose” proposition for years.

Not so now, at least for a time. A more nuanced strategy of supporting fresh produce distribution in pre-made salads and other value-added forms seems to be the right call. 

Do not lose the playbook for salad bars to schools, however. As surely as God made grape tomatoes and sliced cucumbers, the salad bar may be bowed, but it will be back.

Tom Karst is The Packer’s editor. E-mail him at [email protected].

Related content:
COVID-19 redefines school foodservice
How restaurant and retail chefs switched gears to survive
Packer Insight — United Fresh Live! Day One