Salad Bars for School Lunches

More Variety for Vegetarians and a Promising Future

By Karen Leibowitz

Have you or your vegetarian child complained about the lack of options available for school lunch? When I was in public school, the most regularly-offered veggie options were canned green beans, syrup-drenched fruit, and french fries. Now, as a method of implementing new school lunch requirements under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFK), salad bars are popping up in public schools around the country through the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). Things are starting to look up for vegetarian students.

What Foods Are Being Offered At Salad Bars?

Many schools use commodity food items such as grains, dried beans, and peas in their salad bar to stay within their budget.1 Some schools that choose not to provide strictly commodity foods offer only fruits and vegetables (no legumes or grains).

Salad portion size is important. Some students may take such minimal amounts of food that it cannot be counted as a meal, while others take too much and end up wasting it. Most salad bars are self-serve, but if food waste is a concern, the school has the option of providing some pre-packaged or pre-wrapped items in appropriate portions.2 The USDA encourages schools with self-serve salad bars to provide a visual of what a serving of the particular food item looks like (see definition of salad bar portions).3 These are all measures to prevent waste, but for vegetarians, the all-you-can-eat fruits and vegetables options will not likely go to waste!

For more salad bar regulations, see page 8 of USDA's New Meal Pattern in Schools.

What are the benefits?

Salad bars provide variety and more nutritious options for vegetarians, particularly those who participate in free- or reduced-price meal plans and cannot afford to bring their own lunches. While it benefits the students, is it a waste of time and money for schools? The Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition released a summary of research on the use and outcomes of national school salad bars implemented by a donation-supported organization called Let's Move Salad Bars to Schools (LMSB2S). Overall, they found that after implementing salad bars, the participation in school lunch programs increased.4 They found that more than half of schools' salad bars are comprised of items that are counted as completely reimbursable.5

A Baltimore City Success

Baltimore City recently implemented their own salad bar program for schools. They briefly tried salad bars using commodity foods, but were not impressed with the variety of produce offered. The process of implementing their own program took about eight months and required a commitment from the local head of the Food and Nutrition Department and cooperation from the local Health Department, produce vendors, and local farms. The city now has 46 salad bars, and because they chose to only serve fruits and vegetables, the students can eat as much as they want under just one lunch purchase. They offer seasonal fruit and a variety of vegetables. Some foods offered in the past were shredded carrots, snow peas, sliced radishes, broccoli florets, spring lettuce mix, corn, and cherry tomatoes.6 The salad bars are offered every day. By witnessing the success of these 46 schools' salad bar programs and requiring all students to be provided with the same options, all district schools without salad bars now provide a daily side salad composed of the same items that appear on other schools' salad bars.7 Because some schools, like those in Baltimore City, have the reimbursable all-you-can-eat option, it may be possible for other schools, too. Check with your local foodservice director.

Tofu and Veggie Burgers

Some schools have chicken and tuna salad in salad bars. Why not provide tofu or veggie burgers too? Tofu has been recognized and approved as a meat alternative by the USDA, and thus some schools may be able to provide tofu/veggie burgers. (Corn, soy, and black beans are approved ingredients often found in veggie burgers).8

Many schools do not yet offer tofu or veggie burgers for a few reasons. Schools go through a bidding process every year to choose what pre-approved foods to order.9 This makes it almost impossible to add new menu items mid-term. Cost is another limiting factor, especially if veggie burger recipes require non-commodity foods. Local school lunch officials sample and nutritionally analyze new items throughout the year to see if they think the taste will be accepted by the students, and if the items meet current USDA nutrition meal standards. Talk to your local foodservice directors and ask them to sample and nutritionally analyze tofu and veggie burger brands. Remember, the company must be big enough to be able to provide items in large volumes! At this rate, perhaps the future holds tofu crumbles in salad bars someday.

How Can I Get a Salad Bar at my School?

Let's Move Salad Bars to Schools (LMSB2S), which launched in 2010 in support of the Let's Move campaign, donates salad bar equipment to schools using money from sponsors and donors. Their website provides a toolkit for parents and applications for school districts and administrators to help implement donated salad bars in their schools. The toolkit for parents provides information about USDA guidelines, benefits of school salad bars, and a letter of request to the school district to contact LMSB2S for a salad bar. For school districts and administrators, the webpage provides guidelines, supporting research, applications, and other documentation required by schools such as temperature retention tests.

If your school does not have a salad bar, it is time for the parents and children to show their interest! Visit the LMSB2S website for a letter of request, or talk to your local head of school nutrition to suggest getting a salad bar program started to increase lunch options for vegetarian students.


1. "Salad Bar Procurement," The Lunch Box

2, 3. Melissa A. Rothstein, "Salad Bars in the National School Lunch Program," (USDA: 2013)

4, 5. "Evaluation of the Let's Move Salad Bars to Schools Initiative," (Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition: 2014)

6. "Breakfast and Lunch Menus" (Baltimore City Public Schools: 2014)

7, 9. Cynthia Shea, Interview (Baltimore City Public Schools Salad Bar Program: 2014)

8. Electronic Code of Federal Regulations, Title 7: Agriculture, Part 210.10


Commodity Foods: Foods that the federal government has authority to purchase and distribute to state agencies and other organizations, including schools, for little cost.

All-You-Can-Eat: According to USDA's New Meal Pattern in Schools PDF, there is no maximum portion limit for fruits and vegetables in salad bars.

Salad Portion Size: A minimum portion size, enforced by a kitchen worker or cashier upon the time of purchase, is counted as a reimbursable meal. If the selected portion is under the minimum portion size, it is counted as a side/a la carte item. If salad bars are not all-you-can-eat (fruits and vegetables only), items from salad bars can be either pre-portioned, served with appropriately-sized utensils, or served by trained servers.

Reimbursable Meal: Meals that receive monetary reimbursement from the federal government, as long as they follow the USDA guidelines. Meals must include three of the five meal components (grain, milk, fruit, meat/meat alternate, vegetable), and one choice must be a fruit or vegetable. They must be within the minimum and maximum calorie range, and meet nutritional standards.

Foodservice Director: School staff member in charge of ordering, receiving, and managing school food and supplies.

Karen Leibowitz wrote this article while interning with The Vegetarian Resource Group.