Cincinnati Public Schools Get a Long Overdue Upgrade

by Corey Luthringer

With the start of a new school year, Cincinnati students and their parents have something new to look forward to. Recess extended an hour longer? No. Calculus classes for first graders? Not that either. New computers? Maybe. Salad bars in the cafeteria? Oh yes!

With the support from the Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools Initiative, Jessica Shelly, Cincinnati Public Schools Food Service Director, embarked on a challenging journey to provide salad bars to all 53 Cincinnati Public Schools. Achieving great success, all 34,000 Cincinnati Public School students will now have access to a salad bar at lunch stocked with a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Jessica’s journey began in early 2010 when the Cincinnati Public Schools received funding from Chiquita and United Fresh Produce Association Foundation for their first four salad bars. Since then, grants from Whole Foods Market, Molina Healthcare, Xavier University, the American Dairy Association’s Fuel Up to Play 60, and Castellini Company have worked with Cincinnati Public Schools to provide the remaining 49 salad bars, just in time for the start of the fall school term.

What’s the big deal about salad bars? Think back for a moment about your school lunch experience. If it was anything like mine, it was filled with memories of lunch ladies spooning out items from huge pots onto a plate. Items like mystery meat, covered by lumpy mystery sauce, with a side of vegetable goo – at least we thought it was vegetables anyway. And I do recall a fun game we used to play, something along the lines of mixing together these ingredients and daring each other to eat the now colorful concoction. With salad bars and other healthy options in schools, we can’t really complain about kids daring each other to eat cherry tomatoes or mixing a salad concoction. On the contrary, now we can encourage it.

Childhood obesity is on the rise, tripling over the past three decades. And no one knows this better than First Lady Michelle Obama, architect of the Let’s Move! Initiative, dedicated to solving the childhood obesity epidemic within a generation. For many children, the food served at school may be the only meals they regularly eat, making healthier food options in schools more important than ever.

But salad bars are not the only new things in Cincinnati Public Schools. Starting this fall, all of the schools will also have multiple entrée choices, non-meat alternatives, healthier turkey-based meat alternatives, low-fat dairy products, and whole grain products, among other innovations.

Jessica Shelly comments that, “We want to be the premier provider of nutritious, low-cost, delicious meals so that students don’t feel they have to eat school lunch, but that they want to eat school lunch.”

Benefits to the students are already far-reaching in schools where salad bars have become staple cafeteria items this past year. Students are now being tempted to try new fruits and vegetables because they see their friends and teachers doing the same. Students are also offering suggestions for their favorite produce items they want to see in the salad bars.

This school year, the Cincinnati Public Schools will pilot a program called “Mentoring Meals Mondays” as part of the Healthy Monday Campaign launched in Cincinnati this past May. “Mentoring Meals Mondays” will encourage teachers to become good role models, sitting with their students at lunch and eating from the salad bar or bringing a healthy lunch from home. On top of the nutritional benefits, students are also feeling more trusted and respected, and like their salad bar is a special privilege. One student has even exclaimed that he is “just like his friend going to that fancy school” now that he can also visit the salad bar for lunch every day.

Thanks to Jessica Shelly and her determination in securing salad bars for the Cincinnati Public Schools, childhood obesity has the potential to become a thing of the past and the City of Cincinnati has the potential to become a leader and model for school districts nationwide – something of which all Cincinnatians should be proud.