First-graders form a dense cluster around a low gray cart, eager hands snatching cups full to nearly overflowing with red, purple and orange treats.
“My favorite part is you can have as much as you want,” said Ashley Spokes, clutching a baby carrot in her hand.
An all-you-can-eat salad cart designed specifically for pint-sized produce lovers made its debut at the Academy Charter School cafeteria Oct. 1, and is the room's undisputed star.
Brent Craig, Douglas County School District's nutrition services director, smiles and nods in satisfaction as children stand shoulder-to-shoulder on both sides of the cart.
“It's a peer thing,” he acknowledged.
Just as social pressure can draw kids to junk food, it also can pull them toward healthy choices, a phenomenon Spokes witnessed firsthand with two of her best friends.
“They had (the harvest bar) on Monday and now they're not going to stop eating it,” she said.
Peer influence is a tool school officials use happily. With steady application, what started as social curiosity turns into a habit.
At the elementary school level — when young taste buds are malleable and minds are open — that repeated exposure is critical.
“It's hard for me to change attitudes of kids in high school,” Craig said.
Last spring, the nutrition services team introduced Bear Canyon Elementary School students to kiwi. The small, bright green fruit was a hit, so much so that a parent called to tell Craig it's now a staple in the family's home.
“Sixty to 70 percent had never tried it and they loved it,” Craig said. “That's a whole group of kids that are going to grow up now and say, `I love kiwi.' We're raising a healthier group of people.”
For those in Nutrition Services, the cafeteria is yet another classroom.
“Teaching them how to eat is a life skill,” said Janelle Jones, the department's spokesperson.
Nutrition “is a nationwide problem right now,” Craig said. “Our parents asked for this four years ago. We're not doing this because we're regulated. For us, it's a way of life.”
Fruits and vegetables have been standard fare in Douglas County schools for years, but the carts — also known as harvest bars — are a new addition that allow schools to offer a wider variety.
About 18 of the district's nearly 60 elementary schools have the bars; Craig aims to bump that number to 50 by the school year's end. At about $2,400 apiece, that's no small financial feat. But it's one to which Craig is confident they will rise. Nutrition Services is skilled at balancing not only meals, but budgets.
Fresh fruits and vegetables cost more than processed foods. To make up the difference, Nutrition Services raised its per-lunch fee by 50 cents during the last five years, a trade-off to which parents have agreed without complaint.
“We're an enterprise fund and we're self-sustaining,” Craig said. “We balance a whole lunch for around $2.75.”