USDA removes major block to Michelle Obama’s salad-bar program

by Ed Bruske, via Grist.org,

First Lady Michelle Obama announced last week that a new public-private partnership, Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools, would make it possible for as many as 6,000 salad bars to be installed in U.S. school cafeterias at an estimated cost of $15 million. Contrary to what hundreds of irate commenters directed to Grist from a link by the Drudge Report feared, the salad bars will not be mandatory lunchtime eating for the nation’s youngsters, not taxpayer-funded. If parents like Sarah Palin want their kids to eat cookies for lunch, no one is going to stop them.

Of bigger concern has been the USDA’s mixed messages about whether self-serve salad bars would be permitted in elementary schools. Backers of the Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools project said local health inspectors already were citing an Oct. 8 memo from the USDA’s Child Nutrition Division as a reason for declaring self-serve salad bars a potential food safety hazard and not allowing small children around them.

The memo, signed by Cindy Long, director of the Child Nutrition Division, and circulated nationwide, described only two options for salad bars in elementary schools: salads must be pre-assembled and pre-wrapped, or they must be served by an adult working behind a barrier separating children from the food.

But after I questioned her on these points, Jean Daniel, spokesperson for the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Services (FNS) division (which governs the National School Lunch Program), said there was a third option not listed in the memo: Elementary-school children could serve themselves salad, as long as the salad bar was designed specifically for small children with a plastic barrier (aka “sneeze guard”) positioned at an appropriate height.

The FNS later issued a written statement, saying:

USDA does not prohibit self-service salad bars, and they may be used in elementary schools. USDA encourages the use of fresh fruits and vegetables in school meals. Self-service salad bars are one approach that can be successfully included in the meal service when monitored closely to ensure safety. [Emphasis mine.]

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s look at how the salad bars might work.

Raising the bars’ cash

The alliance of produce industry, school food professionals, health advocacy groups, and government agencies has come together under the First Lady’s Let’s Move banner to fund the effort through a combination of corporate and private donations, including creating a website where schools can direct donors from their own communities to make contributions as large or as small as the like to the individual school.

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