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By GINA CAIRNEY
WASHINGTON (November 23, 2011) -- Young children may not jump for leafy greens and crispy carrots, but Maryland schools are seeing a surprising interest from students for healthier options than the pizza and chicken nuggets already on the menu.
Four schools throughout the state were awarded grants for salad bar equipment thanks in part to Michelle Obama's "Let's Move Salad Bars to Schools" program, to promote healthier lifestyles by funding and awarding 6,000 salad bars throughout the country by the end of 2013.
Any school participating in the National School Lunch Program, offering students reduced-price lunches, are eligible to apply for a grant of $2,500 dollars toward salad bar equipment for their school, according to the Let's Move website.
"It was more intricate than we initially thought," said Laura Green, development director at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women in Baltimore City, but she saw "people were excited from the moment we were awarded the salad bar equipment."
Baltimore Leadership School applied for its grant in October 2010 through Whole Foods Market, and received its equipment in March.
Let's Move was founded to combat childhood obesity rates. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said childhood obesity rates have tripled since 1980. Approximately 12.5 million children and adolescents between ages 2 and 19 are considered overweight or obese.
A 2006 Maryland Pediatric Nutrition Surveillance System survey found a 15 percent obesity rate among children in the Women, Infants and Children program between ages 2 and 5, and an 18 percent overweight rate among children in the same age group.
It's no secret that good nutrition is important, especially to young children, but as Executive Chef Robert Hedetniemi from the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center said, "Some difficulties or barriers exist that restrict schools' and families' access to quality fresh foods."
Denzel Mitchell, founder of Five Seed Farms, a sustainable farm in northeast Baltimore, who also helps with the nutrition program at Baltimore Montessori Public Charter School, said the school's salad bar isn't set up yet because "there's no produce" and the rules set by the school district make it difficult to start the salad bar.
"There needs to be a connection between production and consumption so kids can see where their food comes from," said Mitchell, but "it's expensive to get the produce to feed 300 kids every day."
Chesapeake Public Charter School in St. Mary's County may be the most successful of the four schools awarded the salad bar grants, but even this school faced some problems in its application process.
Second-grade teacher Rob Schou, who initiated the grant application, said the easiest part of the process was applying for the grant itself, which Whole Foods made easy online. The hardest part was convincing people the school needed a salad bar.
Schou said because Chesapeake Public Charter was part of the county's food program, the school wasn't allowed to offer more than what the county provided, "and they don't provide salad bars so we had to get an exemption from my boss's boss and his boss's boss, and the food service person."
The students wrote persuasive letters arguing for why the school needed the salad bar, which Schou said worked well, but "the bureaucratic process of getting a salad bar was definitely difficult."
Since the school started offering fresh produce to its students, Principal Angela Funya said the impact has been great.
"We continue to educate the students about the choices they can make about food."
The fourth school also awarded a salad bar grant was Gwynn Park High School in Prince George's County, but the salad bar is not yet set up.
The idea of having a salad bar in the school has been widely accepted by many staff members and students, but there are also other schools in Maryland waiting for salad bar grants.
Midtown Academy in Baltimore City could not be reached, but Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville applied for a grant, and is waiting for donations to match the grant of $2,500 so it can upgrade its existing salad bar.
"We already have a healthy lunch program, but we're trying to add more vegetables and fruits," Development Director Jennifer Zuckerman said.
The school has not advertised to the community to receive donations due to other priorities, but the school has been slowly upgrading the salad bar without grant money. Zuckerman said the academy is still interested in pursuing the grant, and it wants community support to be able to continue offering greater choices to its students.
"It's a kosher diet, so it's expensive to get the food," said Zuckerman.
Despite the advantages a fresh produce option provides students, Chef Sheila Crye from Young Chefs Inc. is quick to point out some of the negative aspects of having salad bars in schools.
"When hundreds of students use the same serving spoons," she said, there's a likelihood of spreading germs, and some students may be more susceptible to catching "E. Coli, Listeria, etc. from raw produce."