My fellow Chef Jamie Oliver is trying to change the way our kids in school are fed and give them healthy options to choose from. At the most recent produce industry convention in Las Vegas, a new effort to get salad bars into our schools safely and correctly is under way.
With school feeding programs it is one thing to get it on the menu, another thing entirely to get it consumed. Good studies are also needed to assess whether eating a salad at lunch is habit-forming and thus increases the likelihood of consumption of a salad at dinner or whether it makes consumption at other day-parts less likely.
Still, the bottom line is so dramatic: a school that bought no broccoli florets suddenly becomes a customer; students who ate a hot dog or bologna sandwich for lunch are now getting access to some healthy produce. It seems highly likely that this is a win for the industry, a win for public health and a win for the children.
Which is why, as an industry, we need to be proactive to prevent a foodborne illness from bringing the whole program to a catastrophic halt.
The research available is sketchy, but indicates there is cause for concern regarding salad bars and foodborne illness. A study conducted by Katherine Diaz-Knauf, Erica Favil, Daisy Vargas and Robert Sommer from the UC Davis Center for Consumer Research published in the Journal of College & University Foodservice found the following:
“…direct consumer access may contribute to health-related problems resulting from eating contaminated foods. Users of a salad and burrito bar in a university restaurant were observed to identify behavioral and equipment-related problems. Findings show that there is the potential for health related problems resulting from spillage and touching food.”
It is also true that even if there is a food safety issue with salad bars, it may be overridden by the great benefit of having children eat more healthfully.
Still, if even one child is found to fall seriously ill or to, God forbid, die, as a result of eating from a salad bar donated or funded through this United Fresh initiative, we can all imagine the headlines and the report on 60 Minutes.
So the industry should do all it can to make sure these salad bars are used properly, especially since children, who are both more likely to do unsafe things and more vulnerable to foodborne illness, will be the ones eating.
Getting children in the habit of eating salad is such a great idea that some risk is worth taking, but we should be just as interested in making sure that every school knows how to conduct, and commits to conduct, proper food safety procedures on a salad bar as we are in getting them into every school.
Bottom Line, we have to start somewhere when it comes to giving our kids better food choices. The large conglomerate food companies see our kids only as a marketing demographic and care little for the rampant obesity problem we have in this country.