So how does a district decide what to offer and what they can afford? The choices can be overwhelming, but as with the other items in meals offered to all students, the costs are carried by the reimbursable meals sold. Just as with any menu, the assumption is that the meal is “offer versus serve.” Not every student will take milk, not every student will take a roll, and not every student will take every item from the salad bar.
As with all meal planning, the cost of the individual components is carried by the averages of selection. If the budgeted cost per meal is $1.00, then that average may include menus that range from $1.20 to $0.80. The salad bar becomes a part of that equation. Studies of districts have shown that average costs for the salad bar per elementary student ranges from $0.16 to $0.26. The range is based on the ingredients and method of production (e.g., purchasing precut vegetables versus cutting whole products, percentage of USDA commodity foods used in the bar).
The Salad Bar Layout
Utilizing a salad bar grid layout is a great tool for ensuring consistent costs and compliance at the site level for the planned ingredient combinations. The salad bar layout examples are just a few of a multitude of salad bar configurations that could be offered.
Example of 5-well salad bar setup
Example of 4-well salad bar setup
The layouts shown here can be offered daily as part of the reimbursable meal. In this example, with the exception of a grain salad, grains are offered from the line to keep breads from drying out on the salad bar.
To make this process easier, we have created an editable 4-Well Salad Bar Set-Up Template and 5-Well Salad Bar Set-Up Template that can help you plan the salad bar layout. The template tools allow you to select the pan sizes that you have and configure layouts for either a four-well bar or a five-well bar. Using a consistent plan for ingredients offered helps you determine approximate food costs. Pre-determined salad bar layouts are also helpful in training the school teams in salad bar set-up and the salad bar’s role as a part of the reimbursable meal. Salad bar layouts can be customized to respond to the location and resources of the school site. If the district has a bar with one-sided access, selection of items will be smaller. In some districts, a mirrored approach works best for the flow of the line. Secondary schools will often support more complex choices without mirroring. In addition, the district may shift the combination of items offered to align with menu themes or to create seasonally driven selections. The salad bar is extremely flexible in that regard.
As part of the reimbursable meal, the “salad bar” creates a challenge for the NSLP production records used for meal claiming. The most common accountability method is adding each ingredient offered to either your paper or digital production record with the attendant serving size for the item. Many districts will preprint all the items offered and the site manager will check or circle which items they offered and estimate how many servings of each were prepared, served and leftover.
However, that type of accountability does not reflect the way salad bars actually operate. Students do not typically choose a half-cup of carrot or a cup of lettuce. They are most likely combining several items to comprise at minimum the required serving. That is reflected quite clearly in the previous section where we discussed developing the recipe.
Another option is scheduling the “side salad” recipe and the “fruit” recipes to the production record as well as maintaining the detailed ingredient production record described earlier for accountability and efficiency. When the side salad is listed in the production record, the detailed by-item Salad Bar Production Record backs up the volume of product that was prepared and assures a state inspector that planned quantities produced were adequate for the reimbursable meals served that day. In the record the reimbursable meal count for the day is used as the “served” or “used” quantity for side salad. For example, if a site served 100 reimbursable meals, then 100 would be recorded for the line item “SB Side Elem." The fruit side can be treated the same way. This method accounts for the individual choices students make at the salad bar, which typically is more than two items.
For a la carte side salads sold, there should be an item record from the POS software to record into the “non-reimbursable” field indicating exactly how many were sold to brown baggers or adults (you may have developed a separate recipe for adults). If a school does not use a POS system, the easiest way to track those non-reimbursable salad sales is to count the side salad containers before service and then record the number used by counting the remaining containers at the end of service. That method can also be used for counting reimbursable salad bar meals if a school has not created a key for a reimbursable salad bar meal in the POS.
By-item production record
Site Level Ordering
The use of detailed daily production records is essential to the site management of salad bars. Cost over runs due to waste at the site level is one of the most common reasons that salad bar programs fail. Depending on the operational model, the site’s role in fiscal sustainability of the salad bar program is extremely important.
There is more protection against waste in a centralized production model where many or all of the salad bar products are ordered and shipped from a central kitchen. Central production allows for more efficient production of cut products, and ordering by sites is simpler because they order by standard measures of prepared product instead of raw product that they must prep on site. This is especially useful for small school sites where receiving a case of a product like cucumbers is not in scale with the rate the product is used.
In the instance where small sites must prep product from scratch, the district may need to specify to the vendor that broken cases or buying product by the pound will be required. Another solution includes splitting cases between sites—one site receives the full case, splits it, and then a driver moves the balance of the case to the other site. Tracking expenses by site can be challenging via this method, but they can be tracked through inventory transfers and maintaining site accounting codes on the invoices.
The USDA’s Food Buyers Guide, which is now available in an online tool, is helpful in estimating the edible portion of many commonly used salad bar vegetables. Accurate salad bar production recordkeeping is the quickest way to ascertain actual needs. You can also customize the Salad Bar Site Produce Projection Tool by scaling the yield of key vegetable ingredients in the salad bar recipe.
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