By James Vaznis
They stopped selling junk food at lunch and they persuaded a health-conscious food organization to donate a salad bar for their cafeteria so students could eat fresh romaine, cherry tomatoes, and bean salads instead of ice cream and potato chips.
By all accounts the fight against childhood obesity and diabetes appeared to be on the upswing at The Curley K-8 School in Jamaica Plain. The salad bar, offered twice a week to the upper grades, was a big hit with about half the students.
But it’s gone.
The School Department has refused to stock the salad bar since September and — to the horror of the school’s health and wellness committee — has reinstated the sale of snacks, including cookies and Doritos, during lunch.
As Michelle Obama campaigns across the country to get more salad bars into public schools, many educators, students, and parents are befuddled by Boston’s decision to weed out salad bars from its cafeterias. Nearly all of the six salad bar stations that once operated in Boston schools were donated by a foundation pushing the cause.
“It is outrageous,” said Susan Trotz, a guidance counselor at The Curley and co-chair of the health and wellness committee. “There’s an epidemic of childhood diabetes and obesity in this country. We need to give our students healthy and good-tasting choices. We need to give our students real food, not processed food.”
Cost is part of the calculation. The school system’s food services program has been quietly shutting down the salad bars over the past two years as it has struggled with millions of dollars in financial losses. The program racked up a $3.6 million deficit last school year and is on track to incur similar losses this year, according to a review the School Department released last week that also unveiled widespread mismanagement and dysfunction in the program.
Interim Superintendent John McDonough, who has been in the post almost a year, said he only recently learned that the salad bars had disappeared from the cafeterias.
“I was taken by surprise to hear about it,” McDonough said in an interview last week, after the Globe first began raising questions. “I don’t think it was an appropriate action. We should be expanding rather than reducing salad bars in the schools.”
He said he was going to get to the bottom of the issue.
A few days later, Brian Ballou, a School Department spokesman, issued a statement, saying the salad bars were a pilot program. He said that “a high cost associated with the salad bar service” prompted the food program to close them and that the School Department also had difficulties meeting state and local health regulations to operate them.
In a follow-up interview, Ballou was unable to provide any estimates of how much money it took to run the salad bars, saying school officials “haven’t done a complete cost analysis” yet. He defended the selling of snacks at The Curley, saying the items met state and local nutritional guidelines.
Boston’s lack of success with salad bars is unusual, said school nutrition experts. The Let’s Move! Salad Bars to Schools — a partnership founded by several organizations, including Whole Foods Market, to support the initiative — has donated more than 3,400 salad bar stations to schools nationwide, including several in the Boston school system and more than 50 others across the state.
The salad bars, valued at about $2,600 each, include chill pads, pans, and tongs. They are designed to last 10 years.
“There are very few that haven’t worked,” said Ann Cooper, a chef who works with the Whole Kids Foundation on the salad bar initiative. “Successful implementation depends upon the support of management and food services and the larger community as well. You just can’t put a salad bar out there and expect everything will work. If kids don’t eat broccoli at home, why would they eat it at school? You have to teach them.”
Just a few years ago, Boston’s food service program launched the salad bars with much fanfare, blogging about it on the school system’s website. The salad bars qualified for reimbursement under the federal free- and reduced-priced lunch program.
One item in December 2011 trumpeted the launch of salad bars at Boston Arts Academy, Fenway High School, and East Boston High School; another in April 2012 touted a “traveling salad bar” that made a stop at the Hale Elementary School in Roxbury; and then two months later a posting featured The Curley School trying out a salad bar.
All the while, the food service program was starting to move to shut them down. In spring 2012, the Boston Latin School parent listserv was buzzing about the possible demise of its salad bar. An assistant headmaster finally interjected, assuring parents it was here to stay.
But food services eventually closed the salad bar there, as it did in other schools.
Whether salad bars will return to Boston schools remains unclear.
Ballou said in his statement that the School Department is looking into more cost-effective alternatives.
A few weeks ago, The Curley started serving pre-plated salads, which are less appealing to students because they can’t choose their own ingredients. The school’s wellness committee has indicated in posts on its website that it would rather have the salad bar back and junk food banned from its lunch room.
Offering a salad bar is a no-brainer, said Katie Fitch, a parent and co-chair of The Curley’s health and wellness committee.
“A salad bar teaches kids how to eat healthy,” said Fitch, who also is a nurse practitioner. “Pulling out a salad bar and replacing it with snacks sends a completely wrong message to students.”
Achly Esparra, 18, of Dorchester, said the School Department was being short-sighted in shutting down the salad bars. Esparra pushed for more salad bars as part of a campaign with the youth advocacy organization Sociedad Latina and used to frequent the Boston Arts salad bar, before transferring to another school.
“They are not thinking with their heads,” Esparra said. “School lunch is disgusting, but students will eat the salad bar and won’t skip class to go to Burger King. The salad bar increases attendance after lunch and increases students’ health.”
But she added, “I think BPS [Boston Public Schools] just sees money.”