White House to put up to 5,000 salad bars in schools

by Ed Bruske, via Grist.org,

First Lady Michelle Obama is expected to announce on Monday a major new initiative that would place up to 5,000 salad bars in public schools nationwide, despite uncertainties over how local health inspectors might treat those salad bars and USDA nutrition-tracking rules that could prove a major impediment.

Officials in the White House, led by chef Sam Kass, and at the U.S. Centers for Disease and Prevention, have been working to build a coalition representing the produce industry and Ann Cooper, director of nutrition services in Boulder, Colo. schools, who recently teamed with Whole Foods to raise $1.4 million from customers to establish a grant program that would place salad bars in qualifying schools.

Under the initiative expected to be announced on Monday in Florida, where First Lady Michelle Obama has taken her “Let’s Move” campaign to fight childhood obesity, Cooper would manage applications for salad bars from the schools along with distribution of funds to purchase necessary equipment.

One potential obstacle to the program is the refusal of many school districts to install salad bars for food-safety reasons and because of cumbersome USDA rules governing the federally subsidized school lunch program that feeds some 31 million U.S. school children every day.

Cooper named three school districts she knows of — Philadelphia, Austin, Tex., and Montgomery County, Md., — that have already indicated they will not support salad bars. Concerns have been raised that elementary school children in particular might be prone to spread disease at salad bars because they are too short for the standard “sneeze guard” installed on most salad bars, or because they might use their hands instead of the serving utensils provided.

Cooper, who would not comment on the pending White House announcement, has dismissed those concerns, saying, “As far as I’ve found out, there are no documented disease outbreaks from school salad bars. By and large, this is not a high risk area.”

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