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Taking the (Salad) Bar



Jeffrey Mills knows it’s not enough to just introduce fresh fruits and vegetables to public school students. You’ve got to model it for them, too.

But don’t worry — you won’t have to walk the runway.

As director of the District of Columbia Public Schools Office of Food and Nutrition Services, Mills is charged with serving healthy, nutritious meals at more than 120 schools across the city. Since he started the high-profile job in 2010, Mills has introduced a number of groundbreaking new initiatives to improve school meals, and salad bars are one part of that menu makeover.
Salad bars are a great logistical benefit to school cafeterias, since they offer fresh, healthy food that’s also easy to prepare and easy to serve.
But convincing students to actually go to the salad bar can be a challenge. 
That’s one of the reasons why DCPS is scheduled to host its “Eat More Salad” volunteer event from Aug. 29 to Sept. 2. Volunteers can sign up to work at a school cafeteria for one lunch shift, where they will teach kids about the salad bar and how to use it.
“Students are much more likely to eat better food if they see teachers or parents eating better food and modeling it for them,” Mills says, adding that volunteers eating at the salad bar will have the same effect.

Mills, The Inside Track notes, is a bit of a celebrity in school cafeteria circles. He once ran The Biltmore Room, a now-closed Manhattan hotspot that earned rave reviews among New Yorkers. He even had a cameo on an episode of Sex and the City. He played (wait for it)… a restaurant owner.

But Mills has left the Big Apple behind for the front lines of D.C.’s childhood obesity prevention efforts. Although adult obesity rates in the nation’s capital are among the lowest in the country — D.C. ranked 49th in the recent F as in Fat report — the city has some of the highest childhood obesity rates. D.C. ranked ninth in the report when it came to childhood obesity.

In response, Mills has instituted measures designed to “give students the gift of a healthy palate,” he says. It starts by providing students with as much fresh, locally-grown food as possible; at least 20 percent of all produce or food products used in school meals are grown or processed in the Mid Atlantic region. 

Introducing fresh fruits and vegetables also is a main component of Mills’ efforts. After he took the job last year, Mills put a lot more produce options on cafeteria menus, and produce consumption skyrocketed.

But it’s not all about just offering up apples and bananas. Mills and his team spent a lot of time picking out which produce to serve and figuring out how to prepare it. Mills recalls tasting broccoli cooked four different ways last year (along with tasting four different kinds of broccoli).

“You can’t just sit back and say, ‘Kids will eat vegetables,’” Mills notes. But, he continues, “If we put time into procuring them and preparing them the right way, kids will eat them.”

It’s the same thing with salad bars. If you pick out the best ingredients, and then show the kids what to do, they’ll visit the salad bar, Mills says.
But beyond giving volunteers their Gisele moment, there’s also a practical reason to bring in the community helpers. Many DCPS students qualify for free or reduced-price school meals, but to receive this benefit, students must have certain nutritional components in each meal. 
So, the volunteers will receive training on how to make a salad that meets these requirements, and then teach the kids to do the same, Mills says.
Since we’re based in D.C., The Inside Track is planning to volunteer at a D.C. high school on Aug. 29. We’ll be sure to take photos and share our experience with you in an upcoming edition. If you’re interested in volunteering, visit the Eat More Salad website to sign up.