Mystery meat and inedible canned vegetables on the school lunch tray may soon be a thing of the past.
Since August, shoppers at the Memphis Whole Foods store have donated about $5,000 to the health food chain's Great American Salad Bar Project. That's enough money to buy salad bars for two local schools, which will be chosen by the end of November.
"The cost of a salad bar is about $2,500, and that's just for the equipment," said Liza Burke, marketing team leader for the Memphis Whole Foods store. "We have the application process to make sure the school is really invested in keeping it up."
Salad bars in local schools are not new. In fact, Memphis City Schools bought 65 salad bars more than a decade ago. Fewer than five of those remain in city schools today, according to MCS spokesperson Heather Danielson. But that doesn't mean kids aren't getting their greens.
"We purchased a salad machine with stimulus money last year, and we started sending salads to our schools from the Central Nutrition Center in November," said Calvin Johnson, the interim director of MCS' Division of Nutrition Services. "The demand for salads has been overwhelming. We can't make enough."
In January, MCS held its second annual food show, giving students a chance to sample more than 130 items to be considered for the regular school lunch menu. As a result of the show, the Division of Nutrition Services added cinnamon pancakes, a low-fat cornmeal-breaded pollock fish, a sugar-free lemonade, and a vegetarian three-cheese, whole-grain bread with marinara sauce to its menu.
"We've served a veggie burger for a couple of years, and we also serve a corn and black bean salsa with baked Scoops as a vegetarian option," said Kim Purnell, a registered dietician with the MCS Division of Nutrition Services. "We're trying to get as many plant-based vegetarian items as possible."
Additionally, MCS has begun using local produce, such as fresh greens and baked sweet potatoes, through their Farm to School Program. The district also participates in the federal Food and Vegetable Program, which funds daily snacks of fresh fruits and vegetables at 18 city schools.
The Shelby County Schools system has salad bars in a few schools, but each of its schools offers a fresh chef salad every day. Shelby County Schools director of nutrition Marsha Landstreet said the district also uses whole-grain breads, part-skim-milk cheese on the pizzas, and even vegetarian pepperoni.
"We've been doing this for quite a few years, but we don't advertise it much because of the kids' perception of healthy foods," Landstreet said.
As for the Whole Foods salad bars, Burke said they should be in place in the chosen schools by January. Nationally, Whole Foods raised enough money for 491 salad bars.