Before even the federal government jumped on the better-school-lunch bandwagon, Rodney Taylor was reconceiving school lunch at Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District in California.
He pioneered the "farm-to-school salad bar" concept in 1997 by designing a salad bar stocked entirely with offerings from a local farmers market.
He started the program in 15 schools in that district and then moved on to the larger Riverside Unified School District, where 30 of the 31 elementary schools now offer salad bars.
And he'll be speaking at a conference here on Tuesday, March 5.
The Farm to Community Conference offers continuing education credits in the education, social work, public health and dietetic sectors. Speakers also will include Judith Dodd, a registered dietitian and University of Pittsburgh professor, and Melody Samuels, executive director of the Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger in Brooklyn. (This conference had been set for this past fall, but was rescheduled.)
Those who attend can choose between two tracks. The farm-to-school track will address topics such as using local foods in schools, connecting farmers with schools, food safety, and regulatory and contract requirements. The farm-to-community track will address "food deserts" and at-risk communities, incentive programs, "buy fresh, buy local" and other topics.
When Mr. Taylor started offering salad bars for school lunch, his theory was that there would be less waste if students could make their own choices. Not only did that turn out to be true, but he has also been able to document that his salad bars are "revenue neutral."
"A lot of people were saying you couldn't do this because you'd lose money," he said -- but he proved them wrong.
At first, students had to choose between salad bar and traditional hot lunch; now he offers a combination, with the salad bar at the head of the line.
"If you go to a buffet restaurant, they have the salads first," he said. "They're hoping you'll fill up on that so you'll eat less of the expensive prime rib at the end of the table."
For him, the issue is not so much cost as nutrition -- he wants the kids to fill up on veggies.
He tries to make the salad bar colorful, and the schools receive produce within 48 hours of harvest. The schools also focus on nutrition education, invite farmers into classrooms and take students on farm field trips. And they help parents learn about good nutrition at back-to-school nights and PTA meetings.
He estimates the school system is pumping about $600,000 into the local economy by using locally grown foods.
States do differ, he conceded, in terms of both government regulations and growing seasons, but he figures everyone can implement at least some of his practices. He benefits from a year-round growing season in California, but he has spoken in Wisconsin, Chicago and other areas where schools have begun to "take advantage of a short growing season and still get healthy food into their schools" -- and he thinks it can be done in Pittsburgh, too.
Rebecca Sodergren: email@example.com and on Twitter @PGfoodevents.