Until this year, the only items that resembled produce on Blessin Giraldo's school lunch tray were berry-flavored Popsicles and Fruit Roll-Ups.
But now, the Baltimore eighth-grader's tray features beds of greens and fruits and vegetables that are available at her middle school through a salad bar option that is sprouting up in school cafeterias around the city.
"I can go to lunch now and know I won't leave without eating," said Blessin, who attends the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women. "Even if we don't like what they have for lunch that day, we know we always have a salad bar as a resource."
Her school is one of 11 in the city that has introduced salad bars — part of a larger trend in Baltimore and statewide to provide students with more healthful meals. On Tuesday, the city will announce the installation of the salad bars in 10 more schools.
The announcement will be made at Calvin Rodwell Elementary School, which will receive a salad bar and permanent water tap station as part of a campaign by cable television network HBO to highlight the nation's obesity epidemic.
HBO, which is producing a four-part documentary called "The Weight of the Nation," is partnering with school districts and organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health to install 100 salad bars and 100 water tap stations in schools across the country.
John Hoffman, executive producer of "The Weight of the Nation," which airs in May, said the purpose of the documentary is "sounding the loudest alarm that we can" to show that the obesity epidemic could cripple the United States' health care system.
Schools, Hoffman said, are a key partner in reversing the trend because children consume half their calories there. Hoffman drew from the most recent survey from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which showed that 94 percent of school meals don't meet federal nutritional standards.
"If that's the case, then we're failing our students in the institution that is preparing them for the future," he said.
The salad bars are among the efforts to improve the quality of food in Baltimore's schools — in neighboring school districts, salads are standard with every meal — starting with the basics of introducing fruit and vegetables to student palates.
"Our vision is that we are a district where, by and large, our food is as minimally processed as possible, and as healthy as possible, and that all kids have access to it," said Antonio Womack, the district's new managing director of food and nutrition services. He took the helm in September after acclaimed food chief Tony Geraci left.
The city's efforts mirror a trend taking place statewide.
State education officials said there has been an increased focus on providing fresh fruits and vegetables in student lunches, as the state noted a significant increase in the past decade in the number of students who require meals at school.
This past year, Maryland schools served 25 million breakfasts as part of the free and reduced-price meal program and 70 million lunches. Currently, four out of 10 students in Maryland schools qualify for a free or reduced-price meal, state education officials said. Elementary schools alone have seen an increase from 35 percent to 50 percent of students requiring meals.
The state is attempting to ensure that each student meal, possibly the only one some have all day, is more nutritious.
Maryland participates in a national "farm to school network" and is the only state to have every school system take part in some way in buying local produce and putting it in school cafeterias.
"If you get it directly from the farmer, you can make sure as many nutrients as possible are in the fruit," said Bill Reinhard, spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education. "We are learning ways that we can help make this happen."
Lorna Hanley, principal of the Baltimore Leadership School, said the salad bar is a major first step in transforming how students view healthfulness.
"The biggest [barrier] was just exposure, turning them on to believing it's cool to be healthy," she said. Hanley showed pictures of boxes of chicken doused in ketchup that one student brought to eat for breakfast, and a lunchbox full of Reese's candy, fruit snacks, Pop-Tarts and cookies that another brought to snack on throughout the day.
"We just wanted to respond to this whole health and wellness need," Hanley said. "Just seeing how tired the girls were from walking up one flight of stairs, how many of them go down to the health suite for insulin — we saw the value of this" salad bar.
The school secured its salad bar with a grant through Let's Move: Salad Bars to Schools, which partners with the Whole Foods supermarket chain. And, she said, students are starting to take their health more seriously, she said.
"I definitely feel like I'm eating less junk to stay full," said Anastasia Jeffries, a Leadership School eighth-grader who doesn't eat meat. She said she eats from the salad bar every day.
Womack is hoping that the enthusiasm about healthful food will continue to spread.
He has spent the past few months applying for grants and selling healthful food programs to educators around the city. He secured more than $1.7 million in grants from the state's Fresh Fruits and Vegetable Program, implemented in 84 schools this year.
The district is seeking to expand urban gardens throughout the city and is in the process of having its own garden, Great Kids Farm, certified to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to schools by the fall.
An emerging initiative has been implementing a classroom breakfast program in all of the city's schools, and 50 have signed on so far; the system also has grab-and-go breakfast kiosks in six schools.
In the city, Womack has sold the classroom breakfast program to schools by pointing out the decline in discipline incidents and trips to the health suite, and increased academic achievement and attendance when students have had breakfast.
"That data is not anecdotal," he said. "That data is fact."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture will begin requiring changes in school lunches in July. The new rules, which will be phased in, will require schools to offer more whole-grain foods, fruits and vegetables every day and only fat-free or low-fat milk, and to tailor calories and portion sizes to the ages of the children.
In districts around the state that already offer more healthful options to students, schools are preparing for the new regulations.
In Baltimore County, every middle and high school has a ready-made box salad available every day, most of the time with chicken or other protein, said Karen Levenstein, director of food and nutrition services for county schools. Elementary school students in the county get side salads with every meal.
"It is an exciting time for the school lunch program," Levenstein said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie contributed to this article.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times