First lady Michelle Obama had Miami elementary school students cheering Monday over a typically contentious dinner topic — vegetables. Even the green ones.
The first lady ate some cherry tomatoes and fresh herbs with the students, who were the first in the country to receive a free salad bar as part of her new initiative to get more veggie displays into school cafeterias.
"If you're going to change your habits, you've got to be ready to try some new stuff...trying some vegetables you might not normally eat," Obama told students at Riverside Elementary.
Only about 15 percent of public school cafeterias have salad bars. Dozens of schools want to add them, but can't afford the $2,500 equipment display or the produce to stock it, said Lorelei DiSogra, vice president of nutrition and health for the United Fresh Produce Association. The organization is donating 6,000 salad bars to schools, mostly in low-income neighborhoods, over the next three years as part of Obama's Let's Move Salad Bars to Schools initiative.
The first lady has championed healthy eating, even planting a vegetable garden at the White House, to help combat childhood obesity rates that have tripled over the past three decades. Obesity-related health care costs are about $147 billion per year, according to The White House.
On Monday, she encouraged members of Congress to "do their part," referring to the stalled child nutrition bill that aims to improve school lunches and expand feeding programs for low-income students. Anti-hunger groups and more than 100 Democrats protested the use of food stamp dollars to pay for it.
The proposed new nutrition standards call for using leaner meats and whole wheat buns in school lunchrooms and stocking vending machines with less candy and fewer high-calorie drinks.
Congressional passage of the bill would be only the first step. Decisions on what kinds of foods could be sold — and what ingredients might be limited — would be left to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Dressed in a chic tangerine pantsuit and matching patent leather flats, Obama admired the school's garden, saying her own garden yielded a good harvest this year.
"You guys are showing that without a stitch of land you can plant a garden because you've done it in cement boxes. You don't have to have a big field to plant vegetables," Obama said. "They aren't just fun to plant but they're critical to your health."
The first lady chatted with students of the predominantly Latino school in small groups, showing them how to dice scallions to add flavor and explaining that yellow squash doesn't have much taste, but it's still tasty mixed with other vegetables.
With the first lady's endorsement, students ventured into eating food many had never tried before. One student ate an entire green pepper. Another munched on a whole cucumber.
Yurys Otero said he doesn't like green beans, but would eat cucumbers and spinach from the new salad bar.
"I used to say broccoli — yuck. But brother told me to try it and it's good," said the 5th grader.