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A Salad Bar Success Case Study: St. Dominic & St. Luke in Oakville, Ontario

St. Dominic Catholic Elementary School and St. Luke Catholic Elementary School, two of our Farm to School Canada Grant recipients located in Oakville, Ontario, have found great success in delivering their salad bar lunch programs through a business model launched by two parents, Stacey Bean and Jill O’Reilley. 

To share how they’ve been able to serve up salad success in two schools and grow excitement for healthy food among many students, we connected with Stacey to learn about their program, what’s worked for them, and what they’ve learned along the way (all information is from pre-COVID times).

To understand their journey, let’s get some context on each school.

St. Dominic

a JK-Gr 8 elementary school
with a population of about 650 students,
received their $10,000
F2S Salad Bar Grant in 2016

St. Luke

a JK-Gr 8 elementary school
with approximately 225 students,
received a $10,000 grant in 2018

Both salad bar lunches are organized and run as paid weekly programs;
St Dominic’s salad day is on Wednesdays and St. Luke’s is on Thursdays.

@StDomSaladCart on Twitter

How does it work?
  • Families sign up and pay for the salad bar meals in advance ($5 per student per week). The program is sold in blocks of 8 or 12 weeks (depending where school holidays fall); most sessions are 12 weeks long.
  • Participants also make a one-time $3 purchase of a logo’d reusable plastic salad container with two compartments, and a plastic fork & knife in the lid (these containers help to minimize food waste!); if a student forgets their container one day a paper plate and cutlery is provided
  • Selling the salad program in weekly blocks informs how much food is needed each week, without a fluctuation in student numbers. For instance, the preparation team will know they need 6 bags of chopped lettuce, 14 cucumbers, 5 lbs of baby carrots, and so on.
  • Their salad carts always have lettuce, cucumber, tomato and carrots as a base, and then they build off that and pick three more vegetables, two to three fruits, one protein, and a grain (a gluten-free option is offered for about 10 students).
  • Food is purchased from three main sources: Ontario Student Nutrition Services, Roseland Produce, and Snax 4 School. On the odd occasion, they’ve also purchased from Costco, the Wholesale Club, or direct from a supplier.
  • All fresh food is ordered to arrive the day before salad day, and they stock up once a month on non-perishable items (grains, salad dressings, frozen proteins, etc.)
  • The salad bar program often has a weekly theme, which they’ve found gets the students excited, eagerly asking in the hallway, “what’s the theme this week?!”
  • Example themes for inspiration: taco salad (most popular), pizza salad (offering toppings you’d find on a pizza), Greek salad, Summer picnic, tailoring the menu toward a holiday in the month, and, the salad bar’s anniversary is always celebrated!

St. Dominic’s first lunch service ran for seven weeks, with 123 students and two teachers. By the first term of their third year, the program had grown to 240 students and 10 teachers. Here’s a term-by-term report of their growth:

  • Year 1, term 1 (7 weeks) 123 students
  • Year 1, term 2 (8 weeks) 132 students
  • Year 2, term 1 (8 weeks) 172 students
  • Year 2, term 2 (8 weeks) 178 students
  • Year 2, term 3 (8 weeks) 195 students
  • Year 3, term 1 (12 weeks) 235 students

Going forward, the team has decided to cap student enrolment at 200 to keep it manageable. 

This program operates with four volunteers two are responsible for the menu planning, sourcing and finances, and the other two come to the school on salad day and help with prep, service and clean-up. The school secretary helps as well by calling the classes down to the gym and helping to manage the line. St. Dominic’s program operates out of a storage room that they converted into a salad workroom (approx. 12′ x 12′ in size). They’ve added two fridges, two stainless steel prep tables, shelving, and a storage cabinet, with a sink nearby in a YMCA daycare room.

The main difference at St. Luke is that this school has a small galley kitchen with double sinks, a microwave, two fridges, and lots of cupboards for storage. A smaller population at St. Luke also sees a smaller salad bar program. In November 2018, they started with 47 students each week, and by April 2019 they were serving 68 students. This program operates with two volunteers at the cart, with the help of the secretary calling the students down to the cart by grade.


Q&A

Dig into our Q&A below with Stacey Bean (SB) to learn how (and why!) they run their salad bars as a business, and to gain some tips on how they’ve successfully grown the programs! We’re talking useful tips, specific logistics, and smart finances:

Tell us a bit more about why these salad bars are run as a business and how this model works?

SB: The idea behind this model was to make it easier to control the finances and not have to worry the school secretary with an abundance of invoices & receipts to be paid each week. We (Stacey and Jill) also set the salad program up so that it would generate its own money to help sustain the program after the grant was done and also to help support students who couldn’t afford to pay for the lunch (these students are always chosen by the Principal).

Basically, the salad program costs families $5 / student / week. From that, the salad fund gets $1, which leaves us with $4 per student per week for food costs. We invoice the school at the start of each salad session for the total amount.Example:

  • 200 students enroll for a 12-week session
  • The school would collect from families: 200 students x $5 x 12 weeks = $12,000
  • We would invoice the school for: 200 students x $4 x 12 weeks = $9,600 to buy the food and run the program
  • The remaining $2,400 would stay in the school salad fund

When you think about specific logistics you had to think through, what successful procedures have you put in place?

SB:
Weekly ordering systems – I have a background in Purchasing in the foodservice industry, so I know from working with chain restaurants that it’s important to have the same people in charge of ordering and maintaining inventory on a weekly basis. It’s a big commitment sometimes for one person, so it’s good to share this responsibility with maybe one other, because it’s not only ordering and maintaining inventory, but also ensuring that the food arrives on time and the correct quantity for salad day, and looking after the budget and paying the invoices. With produce, the weekly prices can fluctuate without notice so it’s important to know where you stand in your budget, etc. I think it’s also important to work with trusted suppliers. We have built up great relationships with our 3 main sources and trust that they can provide our quantities every week.

Dealing with lines & timing –  At St. Dominic, the lunch period runs from 11:20-11:40 a.m. We have 2 salad carts that are 6 ft long on wheels (1 youth size, 1 adult size). The carts are stocked and set up in the school’s secondary gym by 11:10 a.m. The food on the carts is double-sided, essentially creating 4 “lanes” for traffic. We also use 2 folding 6 ft tables for the overflow (protein, grains & salad dressing). 

The youth salad bar cart (the red cart) came from Carlisle Manufacturing. At 6 ft, it is the same length as the adult cart, but it’s a smaller height for younger students – 45.5″ high compared to 62″ high. They used their Farm to Cafeteria Canada grant money to purchase the youth-sized cart, and bought the adult-sized cart off Kijiji using additional funds from the school salad fund.

The school secretary calls the students by grades but they don’t all come at once. We typically start with grade 6-8 (they’re faster and usually have clubs/sports that they have to get to), followed by grade 1 & 2 (they’re slower at the carts and take longer to eat), then our grade 3-5’s (they’re normally our biggest group). Then our kindergarten classes (5 in total) come to the carts, they have a later lunch time and it is also a safer environment for them without the “big” kids in the gym!  By the end, we were getting approximately 165 students through in 13 minutes.

As our program grew, another thing that the school did was allow the students to come back to the gym (after 11:40am) to finish eating. A teacher was assigned to monitor them as we cleaned up the carts. The students would typically have an additional 20 minutes to finish eating and for some, it allowed them to get seconds!

Food distribution & minimizing food waste – We always found it pretty quick to figure out how much we needed each week. Don’t get me wrong, we weren’t perfect and at times ran out or had way too much.  We managed to know the amount of lettuce, cucumbers, carrots and tomatoes that we needed because we served it every week. Also, if there were leftovers of carrots & tomatoes, we could typically save them to use for the following Wednesday. Sometimes, we’d run out of one of the cut fruits or veggies but there was always enough of the other options on the cart to choose from that no one ever went without a full lunch (that’s something that we learned after a few times, don’t sweat it, no one is going without). Another thing we try to do is portion or piece control with our grain & proteins each week. If it was a popular protein (taco meat, for example) we would serve it to the students to prevent over indulgers and ensure everyone got some! The other key factor that helped us with food waste was that every student had the same reusable container, so if they had leftovers, they’d put the lid on and it would go home. 

Promotion – We did a variety of things to promote the program:

  • Free Salad – for our 1st year with the cart we set-up the “Crunch Cafe”. Over 3 days we had every class come through the cafe and enjoy a free salad (scaled down version). In our 2nd year, we did “Crunch on the Go” – we set-up the salad carts and students could help themselves to free pre-packaged salads, fruits & proteins. The Crunch on the Go ran at lunch every Friday in May and each Friday had a theme (Star Wars, Royal Wedding, etc.)
  • Lots of Exposure – we put the salad cart out at as many school events as we could (Curriculum Night for parents, Staff Appreciation Luncheon, Grad/Communion/Confirmation Luncheons & the Heart & Stroke Jump Rope for Heart campaign). We also awarded the salad bar to classes as prizes for Valentine’s Day & Halloween. We did a special ribbon cutting ceremony & luncheon in celebration of receiving the Farm to Cafeteria Canada grant. We invited students, staff, school council members, Members of Parliament and local media to the event. On our first anniversary of starting the salad program, we threw ourselves a “birthday” party and invited all of the same dignitaries back to enjoy the lunch with us. The theme was “Hungry Caterpillar” and the students got to enjoy special treats, including a watermelon birthday cake (the kids even sang happy birthday to the cart!)
  • We use Twitter & Instagram to advertise the salad program (@StDomSaladCart); we use this platform to announce the dates of new sessions, we also put the weekly menu out by the Monday prior so that students & parents know what’s coming up (this is helpful with younger students, parents liked being to explain what was happening each week at the carts). We also tried to make a point of tweeting/posting pics of the students & their salad creations after the Wednesday service. Again, this gave the parents an inside look at what was happening.
  • Each year the salad bar also had a page in the yearbook – we used it to fill the page with pictures from throughout the year of the kids at the salad bar.
  • Our students, as part of their curriculum, made posters to help promote local eating and participating in the salad program. Our grade 2 posters were all sent to Sustain Ontario and they received a special celebration for their efforts!

Ensuring student access – Having the program generate the $1 / student / week really helped and allowed for us to support students in need. We helped students on an ongoing basis and also from week to week when maybe lunch didn’t get packed or was forgotten at home. No one was ever turned away. We also had a local community partner, Halton Food for Thought, who provided additional funds to support students in need. And, every year we applied and were successful in receiving $1,000 from the Metro Green Apple Grant. This money was typically used to do free salad bars for the school.

What are some challenges you’ve encountered, and how have you dealt with them?

SB: For us, the size of the program at St. Dominic was getting too big. It was getting tough to accommodate over 200 students in the 20 minute window. We thought we could either expand the program to offer it another day in the week or limit it to 200 kids. Because our school already had other lunch programs (pizza, pita, Swiss Chalet) for most of the other days, we decided to cap the enrollment at 200.

If you could give some top tips to other schools to implement a successful salad bar program, what insights would you share?

SB: I would say, take it slow & steady, maybe don’t start with a taco salad theme! Understand your limits and be okay with them. We knew when we started that we were working in a space that wasn’t a “kitchen” so we bought prewashed & chopped lettuce, and certain fruits (cantaloupe, pineapple, honeydew). We also bought cooked, ready to eat chicken and hard boiled eggs. 

Having and knowing the set number of students each week at the cart also helped us a lot. It took a lot of the guesswork out of the amounts each week and I highly suggest that schools have families pre-order for the program.

What have been some highlights of the salad bars for you?

SB: Seeing the program grow and the students, staff & families embrace it was one of the most rewarding things. Knowing that you’re part of a movement that is getting fresh, local and healthy foods into the school is also at the top of the list. Sometimes we were introducing fruits & veggies (mango, edamame, beets) to students that they had never seen or tried before, it was exciting to see their appetites evolve! 

Some of our first salad participants at the schools are now in high school, and we have run into them at various events. The first thing they say to us is “we miss the salad bar”!

Why has it been important to you to embrace a farm to school approach?

SB: I remember at the time that we applied for the Farm to Cafeteria Canada grant, we were excited at the prospect of teaching the students, through the salad lunch program, where their food comes from, how to eat healthy and that trying new foods can be fun. We also thought that the self-serve method at the salad bar could also teach the students independence and even a bit of confidence. They are in control of making their lunch when they’re at the salad bar, and we saw a lot of the kids thrive in that environment. The thought too was always that they’d eat the salad if they made it!

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