Implementing Salad Bar in Public Schools

A Survey of School Food Service, Parents, and Students

It is common knowledge that consuming fruits and vegetables is good for your health. Dr. Lorelei DiSogra, Vice President of Nutrition and Health at the United Fresh Produce Association, said, "Research has shown that children significantly increase their consumption of fruits and vegetables when given a variety of choices in a school salad bar. When offered multiple fruit and vegetable choices, children respond by trying new items, incorporating greater variety into their diets, and increasing their daily consumption of fruits and vegetables" (United Fresh Campaign, 2010). So, why is it then that many schools do not include a daily salad bar as an option for their students?

Special Thanks to These Schools and School Districts

  • Cambridge Public Schools in Massachusetts
  • Col. Zadok Magruder High School in Montgomery County, Maryland
  • Pasco County Schools in Florida
  • Seminole County Schools in Florida
  • Walnut Valley Unified School District in California
  • West Orange County Public Schools in New Jersey

Also, thank you to all who took the time to answer The VRG's online survey!

The Vegetarian Resource Group has spent many months interviewing school nutrition services staff, teachers, parents, and students across the nation. After speaking to several persons involved in school nutrition, VRG found that there are numerous factors that prohibit some schools from offering a salad bar. One of the major reasons is that schools have to follow strict USDA guidelines as to what they must include in their daily lunches. For example, according to Walnut Valley Unified School Nutrition Services in California, middle school students are required to have 2 ounces of protein in addition to vegetables and a milk serving. Furthermore, many of those interviewed shared common complaints about having a salad bar in schools:

  • Cost
  • Wastefulness
  • Equipment expenses
  • Limited space
  • Monitoring the salad bar
  • The salad bar's popularity

VRG also spoke with several people from schools that have implemented salad bars successfully, and they offered advice for addressing these complaints.


For many schools, cost is a huge determinant of which foods they include in their daily menus, as are standards set by federal guidelines. Some of the school representatives with whom I spoke purchase their foods through a bid and contract system; essentially, this means that schools let distributors know which food items they want to purchase and, in return, distributors give them their best deal. Then, the schools decide who has the best deal and from whom they would like to purchase. (This system is much like the process of finding a contractor to work on your house.) For some, this process may limit which food items they have access to, whether they are able to purchase food items locally, and how much control they have over what they can purchase. (For example, schools can only purchase what is being offered by distributors.) The schools that had successfully implemented salad bars offered some advice to make them cost-effective. (See sidebar below.)

How to Make a Salad Bar Cost-Effective

  1. Purchase items when they are in season. For example, if tomatoes are in season, they are likely to be plentiful and, therefore, inexpensive. This is the time to include them on your salad bar.
  2. Know your audience and purchase accordingly. For instance, if eggplants didn't sell well the last time you served them, don't buy them again.
  3. Keep produce at the correct temperature to decrease food spoilage and waste.
  4. For some schools, charging by the ounce was an effective way of ensuring cost effectiveness.
  5. Start small. Offer only six or seven items until you determine the salad bar's popularity.
  6. Look for grants that may be used to improve school nutrition, increase the number of fruits and vegetables in schools, or purchase new equipment. These are offered by individual states and sponsored by businesses such as Whole Foods. Learn more about their Great American Salad Bar Project at


A complaint related to cost was wastefulness. A few schools said that, if all of the food on the bar had not been eaten by the end of the day, they must throw it out. Again, purchasing carefully is one means of combating this particular issue.

One solution to wastefulness is donating leftover food. While many homeless shelters and food banks will not accept food items that are not packaged according to set standards, many nonprofits like Food Not Bombs will gladly take these donations. According to Food Not Bombs Co-Founder Keith McHenry, the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act (below) states that persons are not to be held liable when donating food items:

  1. Liability of person or gleaner - A person or gleaner shall not be subject to civil or criminal liability arising from the nature, age, packaging, or condition of apparently wholesome food or an apparently fit grocery product that the person or gleaner donates in good faith to a non-profit organization for ultimate distribution to needy individuals.

  2. Liability of nonprofit organization - A nonprofit organization shall not be subject to civil or criminal liability arising from the nature, age, packaging, or condition of apparently wholesome food or an apparently fit grocery product that the non-profit organization received as a donation in good faith from a person or gleaner for ultimate distribution to needy individuals.


Two common complaints are related to one another: the need for costly equipment (for example, a cold unit) and the lack of space for the equipment. One school's solution to both was to use a BBQ set-up (that the school already had) and to load it with fresh vegetables.

Another viable option was to offer pre-made salads instead of a salad bar. Doing so may be a solution to a lack of equipment, and it may alleviate some of the issues surrounding cost effectiveness and waste. Still, many of those who answered our survey felt that, when schools offered pre-made salads, they were left with few vegetarian or vegan options and often with unfresh salads. (According to some, it seems as if the salads are made only once every few weeks.)

While it may not always be possible, making the pre-made salads fresh would increase their popularity. To maximize the number of salads purchased, serve the toppings separately. For example, offer add-ons such as tofu cubes, chickpeas, and dressings in single-serving containers. This way, vegetarians, vegans, and other students can customize their salads based on their dietary needs and personal tastes.


A few of the school administrators I interviewed complained about monitoring issues, that is, having to keep a close eye on the salad bar because students were putting items in the food or playing with the food. One school's solution to monitoring problems was to make the salad an extra item to be added to the traditional lunch, instead of offering it as an entré.e. This way, no personnel were needed to monitor the food.

Also, some complained that they didn't know if students had clean hands when they went to the salad bar. Hand sanitizer dispensers could be stationed at the entrance to the cafeteria or the food line, and students can be encouraged to use them through announcements.


One of the biggest complaints among school nutrition services is that salad bars aren't popular enough among students to make them worth the school's efforts, especially since financial resources are already stretched. However, schools that have implemented salad bars say that this simply is not the case. VRG spoke to the food service staff person for West Orange County Public Schools in New Jersey, who said that children do like vegetables and that exposure to new veggies at a young age contributes to proper nutrition for years to come.

Salad bars are also hugely popular with Cambridge Public Schools in Massachusetts. According to their Nutrition Services, the items that are most popular with their students include romaine lettuce and croutons.

It is important to use foods that students will like, but also pick foods that are culturally appropriate for your student population. For example, Southwestern and Mexican cuisines are popular in California.

Food Items That Survey Respondents Would Like To See Offered on School Salad Bars

Fruits and Vegetables

  • Baby Corn
  • Beets
  • Bell Peppers
  • Cranberries
  • Green Peas
  • Mushrooms
  • Red Cabbage
  • Red Onions
  • Romaine Lettuce
  • Scallions
  • Shredded Carrots
  • Spinach
  • Veggie Sticks for Dipping


  • Baked or Marinated Tofu
  • Bean Salads
  • Chickpeas
  • Gardein Products
  • Hummus
  • Nuts (e.g. Almonds, Walnuts)
  • Seitan

Dressings and Toppings

  • Fried Onions
  • Guacamole
  • Olives
  • Olive Oil
  • Pickles
  • Salsa
  • Sunflower Seeds
  • Vegan Dressings
  • Vinegar(s)

Other Lunch Items To Be Served

  • Almond Milk
  • Brown Rice
  • Bruschetta
  • Grain- and Legume- Based Salads (Quinoa, Lentils, etc.)
  • Vegan Nachos
  • Veggie Burgers

* For more information on serving vegetarian meals in school, check out VRG's article in Issue 3, 2005, of Vegetarian Journal.

One way to boost the salad bar's popularity is through promotion. The schools with successful salad bars felt that simply offering the salad bar was enough to ensure that students would eat from it. However, faculty members, parents, and students interviewed through VRG's online survey had some useful tips that they felt would aid promotion:

  • Serving free samples/free taste tests
  • Having students create posters to hang throughout the school
  • Conducting student surveys
  • Sending parents info, such as menus, photos, etc.
  • Exhibiting the salad bar options at parents' night
  • Providing nutrition classes that promote the benefits of including fruits and vegetables in one's diet
  • Offering cooking and gardening classes

Popular food service distributors used by those surveyed:

  • Lancaster Produce (Maryland)
  • Performance Food Group AFI (New Jersey)
  • Swiss Produce, Buena Park (California)
  • Todd Tomatoes (Florida)

Other distributors with vegetarian and vegan options:

  • Chartwells
  • Sysco
  • Sodexo

Gardein garden protein is offered by numerous food distributors. See for a complete list of food distributors.

NOTE: Many food distributors offer pre-planned meal plans. However, those researched did not offer a salad bar option.

Brenna Sirois, a high school student from Salado, Texas, made a suggestion that will appeal to technologically savvy students. Her school has a 'my favorite salad bar combo' blog on its website. Students submit pictures of their favorite salad combos - the stranger and more colorful, the better! You can let students vote on their favorites and award a silly prize each month. For example, recognize 'the salado combo of the month.'


  • Prepare foods ahead of time.
  • Using a self-serve approach makes it easier.
  • Solicit advice from school districts that have found a way to make salad bars work.
  • Treat the salad bar like you would a business, including marketing and budgeting. Re-examine product costs regularly.
  • Search for possible government grants, such as funding to increase education about proper nutrition.


Though it may seem that there are many roadblocks to implementing a successful salad bar in your school, there are several approaches that have been proven to be successful for other schools that you should try. There are also additional resources featured at the end of this article to assist you in implementing a salad bar in your school.


The Bill Emerson Food Donation Act, 1996. Web. Accessed July 2010. gleaning/appc.htm.
"United Fresh Launches &039;Salad Bar in Every School' Campaign." United Fresh Produce Association. February 11, 2010. Web. Accessed July 2010.


Slusser, Wendy, et al. 2007. "A school salad bar increases frequency of fruit and vegetable consumption among children living in low-income households." Public Health Nutr 10:1490-96.
United Fresh "Salad Bar in Every School" Campaign.

Food Service Produce Providers for Salad Bars

  • Earthbound Farm
    1721 San Juan Hwy.
    San Juan Bautista, CA 95045
    (800) 690-3200
    Products: Bulk organic baby greens and salad mixes as well as other organic vegetables

  • Foxy Organics
    The Nunes Company, Inc.
    P.O. Box 673
    Salinas, CA 93902
    (831) 751-7500
    Products: Wide range of produce

  • Frieda's, Inc.
    P.O. Box 58488
    Los Angeles, CA 90058
    (800) 241-1771
    Products: Wide variety of produce, including Asian and Latin items, chiles, tropical fruits, and much more

  • Giorgio Foods, Inc.
    P.O. Box 96
    Temple, PA 19560
    (610) 939-9400
    Products: Mushrooms

  • Grimmway Farms
    P.O. Box 81498
    Bakersfield, CA 93380
    (661) 845-5200
    Products: Fresh and frozen produce

  • Mann Packing Company, Inc.
    P.O. Box 690
    Salinas, CA 93902
    (800) 285-1002
    Products: Ready-to-use produce mixtures, including broccoli with baby carrots, cauliflower, and other veggies; broccoli coleslaw; stringless sugar snaps; and more

  • Melissa's/World Variety Produce, Inc.
    P.O. Box 21127
    Los Angeles, CA 90021
    (800) 588-0151
    Products: Wide variety of produce, including organics, tropical, exotic, Asian, Latin, and more

  • Phillips Mushroom Farms
    1011 Kaolin Rd.
    Kennett Square, PA 19348
    (610) 925-0520
    Products: Mushrooms

  • Tanimura & Antle, Inc.
    P.O. Box 4070
    Salinas, CA 93912
    (800) 772-4542
    Products: Pre-chopped salad mixes and vegetables

Taken from