Betti Wiggins is a powerhouse in the world of school food. She’s won nearly every school nutrition award and continually receives accolades from farmers, foodies and everyone in between. Lucky for the United Fresh Start Foundation, she’s also a friend.
Betti joins United Fresh members on Capitol Hill, educating legislators about the importance of federal nutrition standards. Betti and her foodservice team attend the United Fresh Convention, participate in the School Foodservice Forum, talk with produce industry leaders, and share best practices with other school foodservice directors. And just last year, she was featured at the Foundation’s salad bar ribbon-cutting ceremony announcing the milestone of achieving 5,000 salad bars in schools across the country.
Yet, despite a school foodservice career spanning more than forty years and nationwide prominence for her commitment to providing fresh produce to her students, Betti has not always been an unwavering believer in school salad bars. “To be honest, it took me a little while to come around on the salad bars,” she says. “I was concerned about accountability and ensuring students were taking appropriate portions of fruits and veggies. I had to think about our setup because we needed the salad bar to be part of the lunch line, so my staff could assist students and encourage them to try to try different veggies,” she added.
Today, however, Betti provides salad bars in all 157 elementary schools in the Houston Independent School District, where she is the Officer of School Nutrition Services, providing nearly a quarter of a million meals to children each day. While some of the salad bars came through the United Fresh Start Foundation’s Salad Bars to Schools program, the majority are older steam tables, cold-lines, and chill pans that she creatively repurposed into self-serve salad bars.
What led to the shift?
“We had to figure out what worked for us,” Betti says. “I was leaning [towards salad bars], but it wasn’t until some of my school nutrition friends like Bertrand (Weber) in Minneapolis and Jessica (Shelly) in Cincinnati were doing it, and I was able to ask questions that I became more comfortable and encouraged to see how we could make this work in my schools. It was helpful to know that if I was going to implement salad bars, I wasn’t out there alone. The Salad Bars to Schools program does a good job of highlighting directors that are using salad bars and giving them a platform to share their insights and success.”
Today, Betti plays that same role to other school foodservice directors, sharing salad bar best practices and answering questions at the School Foodservice Forum and throughout the year.
“Salad bars are beneficial on so many levels,” says Betti. “First, students think the salad bars look great, and we know what we eat is influenced by how it’s presented. Second, kids are taking portions they want, so our waste is down. And third, I’m a firm believer that you can educate kids simply by putting fresh fruits and veggies in front of them every day, engaging them and giving them the ability to choose. The kids learn to expect it, and that’s what we want,” Betti explains.
She also credits her introduction of salad bars with helping elevate the image of her meal program. Citing that our lifestyles have changed, she believes the salad bar mimics the types of meals students buy outside of school, helping her program seem more, in her words, “commercial” and therefore more desirable to kids. “Today, kids have high expectations for their food. When they go to the grocery store, they see six different varieties of grapes, apples and pears from Oregon and Washington, and local Texas valley produce throughout the year. Many kids are also cooking at home with meal kits and are exposed to new produce items that way.” Betti therefore aims to provide similar variety and choice on her salad bars.
“At the end of the day, our goal is good and thoughtful food, served with love,” she said. “I’m confident that if we keep offering fresh, if we keep those salad bars looking colorful, if we keep engaging our students on the lunch line, in the garden and the classroom, together we can teach our next generation the joys and benefits of good, healthy food.”
By: Andrew Marshall, Director, Foodservice & Foundation Partnerships, United Fresh Produce Association