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School Lunches Get Leafy in Los Angeles

Children take their turn at the salad bar at Gratts Elementary.
Eric Grigorian for NPR
Children take their turn at the salad bar at Gratts Elementary.
Dietitian Ivy Marx on the playground at Gratts Elementary School in downtown Los Angeles on Feb. 13, 2008. Marx set up salad bars at Gratts and other public schools in Los Angeles County.
Eric Grigorian for NPR /
Dietitian Ivy Marx on the playground at Gratts Elementary School in downtown Los Angeles on Feb. 13, 2008. Marx set up salad bars at Gratts and other public schools in Los Angeles County.

Across the country, only one-third of children between the ages of 2 and 19 eat the recommended three to five servings of vegetables per day, and only a quarter eat enough fruit. As a result, many schools are trying to teach better eating habits.

Ivy Marx is a registered dietitian at the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). She's upbeat and extremely energetic, and she has a mission. During the past seven years, Marx has helped set up 60 salad bars in Los Angeles public schools.

"We've heard about all studies nationwide about our kids not getting enough fruits and veggies," Marx says. "I am a registered dietitian, so I feel strongly about exposing these kids early on, so when they grow up they'll continue to want to feed their bodies with these good foods."

Marx says, surprisingly, kids "love" salad bars; it's the adults who are often skeptical. "I had a kid at one school where we had a salad bar come up to me and say 'This is the best day of my life' — all because of the salad bar!"

Setting Up a Salad Bar

Marx is visiting Logan Elementary School in downtown Los Angeles to determine whether a salad bar could be started there. Principal Diane Ramirez's concerns are typical.

"My concern is always how do we fit this into the space we have and get children through the bar, seated and eating in the 45-minute time slot we have," Ramirez says. "That's going to be the challenge."

That's particularly true at a school like Logan, with 595 students. But Marx is not deterred. She surveys the lunchroom with Ramirez, trying to figure out how student traffic could be rearranged to accommodate a salad bar. Marx suggests moving one table and having kids line up into two lines, serving themselves on both sides of two salad bars. That way, instead of standing in line idle and just talking, kids could be serving themselves from the salad bar and moving on.

About one year ago, the situation was similar at Dayton Heights Elementary School downtown. But school administrators agreed to try the salad bar and, according to all involved, are now thrilled. At lunchtime, it's surprising how precisely — and quickly — the kids enter the cafeteria, split into two lines and help themselves to the salad bar, even using tongs.

'Harvest of the Month' Program

Teacher Marina Morales may have something to do with the children's enthusiasm. Morales organizes the "Harvest of the Month," in which new produce is featured. Each classroom gets a case of the item, and kids can taste it, along with learning about it.

"I sometimes do cooking lessons with them," Morales says. "We do science and math. We weigh and measure, count seeds, look at attributes like color and size. But the other thing I find interesting about 'Harvest of the Month' produce is that it's also featured in the salad bar."

For example, when the kids saw jicama at the salad bar, they already knew what it was and what it tasted like. As Assistant Principal Christopher Etan says, the school is "increasing their dietary horizons."

"When we have a particularly foreign looking object on the salad bar, I will often almost peddle the food to students," Etan says. "I'll say things like, 'I know that you would love to try this' and sometimes I hold the tongs and help children make choices. I encourage them to be adventurous."

Displacing Unhealthy Foods

A recent UCLA study of Los Angeles schools confirmed that children do eat more fruits and vegetables when they're served at salad bars. Pediatrician Wendy Slusser headed the study. Over a two-year period, Slusser says, students at schools with salad bars increased their fruit and vegetable consumption by one full serving a day. That's a whopping 38 percent increase: "And they also displaced fatty foods," Slusser says. "In other words, they were eating much more of a variety of fruits and veggies after the salad bar, and lower amounts of cholesterol and less saturated fats."

Slusser says other studies have shown that fruits and vegetables displace unhealthy foods, in part because the water and fiber content makes people feel much more full, even though the foods are calorically less dense than high-carb, high-fat foods.

There's also a psychological factor, Slusser says. Because humans evolved from animals skeptical of bitter foods — they might be poisonous — it can take multiple "tries" to get kids to eat vegetables.

"When you're 2 to 3 years old, it potentially takes 10 times to be exposed to that new vegetable before you're going to actually accept it as something that's part of the foods you normally eat. By 4 years old, it could take up to 20 exposures or tastes before you'll accept a vegetable," Slusser says. "And if parents don't know that information, they might just think their child doesn't like vegetables, because they spat it out on the first try."

Slusser says parents should try and try again if they want their kids to embrace healthy eating patterns. In the end, it's clearly worth it, she says.

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Award-winning journalist Patti Neighmond is NPR's health policy correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.