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APS Sets the Bar Too High for Salads at Schools

By Lee Ross
Mountain View Telegraph
          For most people, it should be pretty easy to sympathize with Kevin Hale.
        Hale, who teaches gifted classes at San Antonito Elementary School, won a $3,000 grant for a salad bar for his school from first lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move Campaign to fight childhood obesity.
        It has yet to be used, though, because Albuquerque Public Schools is making things pretty difficult, he said.
        "All they see is a liability," he said. "Are we united on this? We're obviously not."
        Hale said the salad bar could be a way to change eating habits and lead to a healthier lifestyle in the school.
        But a letter from APS's Food Services in January stated that maintaining and monitoring salad bars is costly and time consuming, and "we are not at this time willing to approve this addition to our school food service program."
        After Hale asked the district to reconsider, APS sent new documents that concluded that an elementary school could have a salad bar provided it met seven requirements — ranging from additional volunteers to safety issues to obtaining permits to limiting the food served to four vegetables.
        Hale said the requirements are too onerous to work.
        He points to studies that show a clear need to improve the health of elementary students: A statewide body mass index survey of kindergarten and third-grade students says that about 30 percent of kindergarten students and nearly 39 percent of third-graders are overweight or obese.
        That's why Hale said he was surprised the school district wasn't more supportive.
        "I was surprised at the immediate resistance," he said. "It's literally fighting city hall. ... We're fighting the good fight."
        That good fight landed Hale and a few of his students in hot water. When cafeteria workers at the school saw student letters to Michelle Obama that called the school's food "the most disgusting thing that will pass your lips," among other things, they got a bit upset, Hale said.
        One of his students, Gina Sanchez, said that wasn't the intent.
        "We didn't mean to hurt their feelings," she said. "We were just trying to get the salad bar in."
        Another of Hale's students, TJ Porter, said it seemed a pity to waste the equipment.
        "They were giving away free salad bars," he said.
        When asked if it would have been better to spend the $3,000 on fresh fruits and vegetables for the school, another student, Bryce Lewiecki seemed to agree.
        "That's actually kind of a good idea," he said.
        However, the grant went through, and the equipment has been purchased, Hale pointed out. He conceded that he should have communicated with APS before the purchase went through.
        "We did not communicate adequately beforehand," he said.
        According to the APS documents, "There is nothing that makes leaf spinach, tomatoes, carrots, bell peppers more nutritious when placed in a salad bar. On the same note, salad bars may have mayonnaise-laden high-fat meat salads, pasta salads, high-fat salad dressings and croutons all of which are packed with calories and usually used in excess."
        However, ranch dressing is served in ample amounts at the lunch counter, Sanchez pointed out.
        The district document also says that schools are paid by the Department of Agriculture based on portions served to students, which presents a problem when students are left to control their own portions.
        Hale added that the idea of having a salad bar is, in part, to get kids to choose their own vegetables and learn to feed themselves.
        "We see the cafeteria as an extension of the classroom," he said. "... It's a learning opportunity."
        One of the documents says that, left out for the possibility of people touching it, the food in the salad bar could become contaminated, and that produce is delivered once a week.
        In addition, it says the unit would need to have someone monitor it, and the district doesn't have cafeteria workers to spare for the job. It would also require about four hours a day for a trained volunteer.
        With his teaching duties, Hale said he doesn't have the time to operate the salad bar each day or to get training — which he would have to pay for himself.
        "Teachers have more to do now than ever," he said. "We can't put a certified teacher four hours per day at the salad bar."
        With a compost pile and a small garden, the school prides itself on being "green," Hale said. Students, however, can't eat what they grow in the garden, he said. To be considered safe, the food would have to be sent to the district for inspection, then sent back out to the school.
        "They won't get involved at any level," he said. "We need them to be involved."
        For now, the salad bar will remain unused, but Hale said he will continue to work with APS to find a way to put it in use.

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