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Learning Lunchrooms: Salad Bar Innovation

Our vision of the cafeteria is one that uses equitable and system-sustainable practices to design and build an innovative salad bar.

Photo of M Essa
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Chef Ann Foundation (CAF)

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small NGO (under 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

Adams 12 Students and Faculty, Adams 12 School Food Service Professionals, CAF National Food Service Director Advisory Board, Local Manufacturers

Website of Legally Registered Entity

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 1-3 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Boulder, Colorado

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Northglenn, a city with a total area of 19.42 km^2 in Adams County which is 3066.5 km^2

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Located just 25 miles west of Northglenn in Adams County, the Chef Ann Foundation has deep relationships with local school districts, farmers, and food companies. We have been actively working with the food community here for over 10 years. Our organization has hosted and participated in several events throughout Colorado, as well as presented at numerous conferences focused on health and wellness initiatives in schools. While we are a national organization, we take great pride in our home region and supporting those nearby districts in serving nutritious meals for students. The Principal Investigator for the proposed vision has over five years of research experience within the Colorado-based food system and has worked specifically around addressing gaps and barriers to access to healthy foods in Adams County. Their research background lies in Community Based Participatory Action Research, and they have worked on food research in the equitable food redistribution field, healthy food access for food pantry recipients, as well as two years operating the Salad Bars to School program for Chef Ann Foundation. Due to the proximity of our offices, the Chef Ann Foundation will be able to be deeply involved with the in-school research, manufacturing, and testing of the salad bars. 

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Adams County is apart of the Denver Metro area with a population of almost 500,000 residents, it is the 5th largest county in Colorado. Per the latest census data, 14% of the population is living in poverty. Of that percentage, 47% are minority populations. 41.8% of children in Adams County receive WIC benefits and 49% of all students utilize free and reduced lunch programs. With nearly a 20% population increase since 2010, this growth is likely to continue as more industries continue to move to Denver metro area, especially tech and agriculture (the fastest-growing industries in the area). As the city’s growth continues, so will economic disparities. More than one-third of Denver metro area families are already cost-burdened, spending more than 30% of their income on housing. High costs of living are a byproduct of the growing tech industries and largely cater to a white and affluent demographic. 

Located on the high plains at the foot of the Rocky Mountains -- a semi-arid, continental climate zone -- the region is often subjected to sudden and drastic changes in weather, making it fertile, yet a difficult place to farm. Rural Colorado is home to over 33,000 farms and constitutes the majority of the state’s agricultural production. 

1 in 11 Coloradans struggle with hunger, which is reflected in the 49% of low to moderate-income neighborhoods that lack convenient access to a grocery store. Shaped by numerous factors, including transportation, cost, and preference, the average Coloradoan eats only 2 servings of fruits and vegetables per day, well below daily recommendations. These consumption habits are impacting health across the state with rates of diet-related chronic diseases rising, concentrated in low to moderate-income areas, disproportionately affecting minority communities. Diet-related chronic illness markers note that high blood pressure and cholesterol are at rates higher than the state average. Adams County identified that increasing initiatives surrounding institutional food policies that increase healthy fresh produce found in school lunches would drastically improve the Adams County food system. While this work is making great progress, we at the Chef Ann Foundation believe that this work needs to expand to more schools across the state and nation, ultimately benefiting this county’s next generation. According to research supported by the National Farm to School Network, public schools produce 1.9% of food waste in the country, which amounts to 36.5 pounds of food per student per year. We see schools as an opportunity to teach and influence students to create lifelong positive habits to reduce food waste and have a healthier diet. Working on this pilot with the STEM Launch school could prove to make a huge impact throughout Adams County, as success will lead to expansion throughout the 47 schools in the district.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)


What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?


Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Nearly 1 in 8 children in the Denver Metro area suffer from food insecurity and hunger, with just over 50% of the Adams County student body eligible for free or reduced-cost meal programs. School meals are often a student’s most nutritious meals of the day, but even with the USDA nutrition regulations, students don’t always have access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Research shows that increased access to healthy food leads to an increase in fruit and vegetable consumption amongst children and improved acceptance of new foods. In addition, studies indicate that increased consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables and decreased consumption of processed foods leads to improved socioemotional well-being and academic performance.

Chef Ann Foundation currently sources salad bars from a big box manufacturer based in California for national distribution. We have been working with this retailer for just over 10 years and have seen the cost increase annually. This, paired with the relatively short lifespan of the plastic-based salad bar, drives us to search for a new and innovative design. Information gathered on a national level from food service directors currently utilizing our salad bars demonstrates that just a small amount of student engagement coupled with nutrition education increases students’ short-term acceptance of new foods and can lead to long-term healthy diets. Food service directors have also described the challenges of monitoring students for portion control, causing excess cafeteria food waste. Today we see negative representations of the lunch ladies’ role in school food. There needs to be a movement to engage them, elevating the importance and relevance of their career, or they will become obsolete and lost in a highly processed and packaged environment. In 2050, these health-related issues we see now will only be exasperated if we do not move to make changes in the behaviors of our youth. Healthcare costs will rise as life expectancies lower. As each day passes, the world steps forward into a more digital version of itself. School food needs to follow this trend, otherwise, it will lose its customer base to more trendy, but less healthy options. 

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

To address systemic issues and related to food education, access, and sustainability, we have chosen to depart from our current salad bar model, and instead, create an interactive and engaging model. The redesigned salad bar will solve common implementation issues faced by foodservice directors, while also engaging students in an innovative way around healthy eating education. We seek to design these bars with a full understanding of student perspectives from communities with the highest rates of food insecurity. The ultimate objective is to create an interactive salad bar that will support increasing student fruit and vegetable consumption and reducing plate waste. By leveraging innovative technology to reframe cafeterias as spaces for learning, students can learn about healthy eating, environmental impact, agriculture, and local economies. We will serve as the bridge to help schools find the appropriate partners in neighboring Denver, the second-largest agritech business center in the country to showcase this education through technology. 

As described previously, school meals have the potential to be the most nutritious meals of students’ days. A diet rich in fruits and vegetables can lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, and have a positive impact on blood sugar. Studies have shown that with the right diet, students are more engaged and attentive in the classroom. We also know there is a relationship between the inability to access foods that can support healthy eating patterns and negative health outcomes. Further, access to fresh produce is correlated with improved student academic and behavioral performances. If we are able to improve access to foods that support healthy eating patterns, we can begin to address health and economic disparities. 

We will use appropriate technology to innovate the serving process, integrating weighted aspects of the bar to track amounts of fruits and vegetables served and to help students understand serving sizes. The result of the technology will not only help students learn about nutritional balance and healthy and culturally-relevant food but will also teach valuable lessons about environmental impact and sustainability in food. If possible, we could partner with an organization like LeanPath to aid in a measuring station, weighed daily to help both students and administrators understand what they are throwing away at the end of lunch. 

Appropriate technology and equipment also has the added benefit of better facilitating potential farm and school partnerships and further boosting local economies.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

Students in Adams County are located at both a geographic and metaphorical hub. With the close proximity of rural Colorado’s monocropping expanse, and the food tech hub that lies within the city lines, there is a clear priority placed on food innovation in both the farming and consuming sectors. Students will learn at an early age, how food can have a drastic impact on their overall health and wellbeing, and how their eating habits can impact the world around them. The Chef Ann Foundation would like to tap into the great learning potentials that are currently underutilized with the confines of the cafeteria. In our vision, the cafeteria is a microcosm of the larger food system, where a student can develop intrinsic ties with the food they are consuming and create sustainable, responsible eating habits, that will inform them for the rest of their lives. The K-12 school system creates a foundation of learning that our youth rely on to become the next generation of thinkers in our society. Technology is the future and has proven to captivate many young audiences. Our high-level vision aims to carry school food into this technological future, staying relevant through technology, to reach and impact the habits of youth. With our current food crisis, we need to be doing all that we can to ensure that the next generations are aware of and engaged in sustainable food production and procurement. 

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Phase one of the design process will help us fully understand the barriers to salad bar implementation, and nutrition education gaps that exist for both students and food service staff. We know that food waste is an issue across the nation, and with Adams 12 Five Star Schools being one of the largest procurement institutions in the county, if they made strides to decrease their impact, the environmental impacts would be remarkable. We also know that Colorado is one of the top agricultural producers in the country. If the largest purchaser in the area creates more demand for local, fresh produce, new distribution channels could open, and the food served in the cafeteria can decrease its carbon footprint. We will pull from the extensive pre-existing research and look to partner with local organizations that have food waste, food justice, and technology expertise. We will look to connect Adams with sustainable agriculture partners to have increased access to responsibly sourced foods, especially fresh fruits, and vegetables, boosting the local economy, and supporting regenerative practices on the land. For phase one, we will work with the STEM Lab School, with other students throughout Adams. At the root, our research will utilize Community Based, Participatory Action Research (CPAR) to not only learn from but engage with our research participants, allowing for them to take part in the ideation process and creating solutions to the barriers that exist for them. CPAR is a partnership approach to research that equitably involves all parties, community members, organizational representatives, and researchers. The ultimate goal of utilizing this research method is to increase knowledge gained and create action items focused on change that will benefit the affected community members. In this case, our community members will be the students that participate in school meal programs and the foodservice staff that prepare and serve meals. Outcomes from this first phase will include full information gathering through small group facilitation, as well as identifying leaders from each different community group to represent the group in future steps. These groups will identify and create sustainability standards that our final salad bar materials need to meet, the barriers that exist for both students and staff in implementing salad bars, educational goals that participants hope to gain, and helpful technology to incorporate. Some of the metrics we hope to track and incorporate into these salad bars are food waste, portion sizes and relevant health code requirements. Through these metrics, we will be able to track consumption which will lead to new data on the impacts of students eating fresh fruits and vegetables. We know that increased access to and consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables impacts students on a classroom level, but more conclusive data is needed. Through this innovative tracking technique, we will have access to this data, and the possibility to deepen the research field.  In terms of nutrition education, we hope to utilize tech to facilitate farmer and food connections. This process will identify any community partners such as tech or specialty manufacturing that we will need to reach out to and a partner for creating the final product.

Phase two will be ideation, where we will begin engaging with manufacturing partners to best get parameters around possible building materials within our budget. We will gather lists of materials that are within our build-out budget and meet sustainability standards set through phase one to present to the small groups.  Small groups will be comprised of representatives from each community group in phase one, farmers, and food service staff that currently facilitate salad bars. Once the small groups have been gathered, we will discuss ideas from phase one with the ultimate goal to create a realistic, affordable and human-centered solution needed for this school district. Tech partners will be brought in once the small groups have decided upon a physical design layout. 

Phase three, arguably the most impactful and comprehensive segment, will involve prototyping and user testing. In this phase, we will apply the completed research to the new salad bar model to fully design and create an initial prototype. This will then deploy to the STEM Lab school that we worked with for ideation, throughout all grade levels. We will take and assess feedback to then incorporate into the final iteration of our design.

Phase four is the implementation. Our final salad bar design will incorporate the aforementioned feedback, and we will have developed implementation guides for directors and state agencies to help understand and utilize these installments to their fullest potential.  It will be crucial that our ultimate design is something that will be affordable and accessible to school districts throughout the U.S. This human-centered and community-based design process will engage communities facing high rates of food insecurity and disparity. Adams County is located at the nexus of food and agriculture innovation, this tech-based solution has the potential to forge new connections between students and their foods, as well as allow for increased ease in implementation for food service staff. 

This could create monumental changes in fresh fruit and vegetable consumption and procurement throughout Adams 12 Five Star Schools District. The potential increase in local procurement could create new and lasting partnerships between local agricultural producers and one of the largest procurement agencies in the county and could spread throughout the 47 schools in the district. The increase in access and engagement around fresh fruits and vegetables that the students will have both throughout the process and sustaining long past the end of this grant period is great. The potential tech innovations could showcase different culturally relevant features, creating links to pop culture or history, that will create lasting food relationships. The Chef Ann Foundation believes that it is the right organization to further this vision due to our experience with districts from across the country. We have the capability to scale and distribute these innovative salad bar designs and further the resources available for this type of technology on a national level. 

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • Email

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Join the conversation:

Photo of Zsofia Pasztor

Hello Chef Ann and team! We have met once in Everett WA years ago. We build edible school gardens and use them as outdoor hands on learning lab for standard compliant STEM and STEAM education. It would be wonderful to be able to use the food in the kitchens and serve it to the students. Slow process to rework the system... maybe we can connect and help each other reach our goals sooner. Thank you for all you do!

Photo of M Essa

I would love to connect! Please send me an email and we will set something up.

Photo of Dr. Kelly Gehlhoff

I would like to connect and learn more too.

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