The folks who crank out 210,000 meals every day in Hillsborough County public schools want students to know two very important facts.
French fries are not a vegetable.
All food does not come out of a paper bag.
To help promote better nutrition, the school district is set to roll out salad bars in every high school beginning Tuesday. A handful of schools have had them since last year, and they have been a hit with students.
"For a lot of the kids, it's probably the only salad they will eat," said Jennifer Currey, who works in the cafeteria at Chamberlain High School, which already has a salad bar. "They don't get it at home."
Kathy Quinones, the manager of Chamberlain's cafeteria, said she sells about 100 salads a day now, which is about double what was sold last year. She would love to sell 400 or 500 a day at the school, which has more than 1,800 students.
"At the high school level, a lot of them just want pizza and fries, but they're hearing the message," Quinones said. "You need to eat healthy."
It's not a salad bar in a traditional sense, like at Sweet Tomatoes, where students serve themselves whatever items they want on their salads.
For sanitary reasons and for efficiency's sake, students check off on a piece of paper what items they want on their salad, then the cafeteria workers makes it for them.
"They like the custom aspect of it," Quinones said. "They like being able to choose what they want."
For $2.75, the cost of a normal school lunch, students can choose up to five items, along with their dressing. They can buy additional toppings for 50 cents each. A lot of students at Chamberlain qualify for free or reduced lunches, so the cost is either minimal or nonexistent.
Banana peppers and jalapeno peppers are hot items among students. Tuna fish and olives also are popular.
On a recent school day, a line of about 20 students formed during the first lunch period at the salad-making station, which is called The GreenHouse.
They could have had Big Daddy's Pizza, a ham and cheese hoagie, macaroni and cheese or sweet potato soufflé, but they had their eyes on vegetables instead.
"This is the only place I can eat a salad most of the time," said Sarah McCartney, a 17-year-old senior. "I've been trying to eat healthier."
McCartney said she was skeptical when she first saw the salad bar.
"Once I tried the salad, it was addictive," she said. "I couldn't stop eating it."
Austin McGraw, a 16-year-old junior, loves to put shredded cheese and apple slices on his salad, along with turkey or grilled chicken. He said he, too, doesn't eat a lot of salads at home.
"I like the fact that it's healthy and it tastes good," he said. "They have a whole variety of toppings to choose from."
Even teachers and administrators at Chamberlain have come to adore the salad days. Some of them even make salads to go and take them home for dinner or for a spouse.
"If I am going to eat anything in the cafeteria, that's the only thing I am going to eat," said Assistant Principal Mandi Ayala.
Ayala said high school students need as much help as they can in the nutrition department.
"I think it's essential," Ayala said. "I wouldn't have thought they would have ever been interested, but they have so many choices."
Mary Kate Harrison, general manager of student nutrition for the district, said she would love to try the salads at the elementary school level. There are space issues at the middle school level, she added.
The district serves about 210,000 meals each day – that's the sixth most of any county in the country.
But fewer than 20 percent of kids eat the recommended five fruits and vegetables on a daily basis.
"Our goal is to get them to venture out and try some of these new things," Harrison said of students. "I think salads have universal appeal in some ways."