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Maplewood school lunch lady’s fruit and vegetable displays go viral

Connie Sarne, a "lunch lady" at John Glenn Middle School in Maplewood, Minn., carries her fruit and vegetable display to the lunchroom Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. She makes it at home, spending her own money on the food and tools, and then puts the display on top of the salad bar every day. She wants to show kids that the healthy options can be fun. Her displays have gone viral online. Jean Pieri / St. Paul Pioneer Press1 / 2
“I think it’s really creative,” said sixth-grader Brooke Afework, center, about Connie Sarne’s fruit and vegetable display at John Glenn Middle School in Maplewood, Minn., Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. Standing behind her is Tiffanie Erickson, 12. Jean Pieri / St. Paul Pioneer Press2 / 2

MAPLEWOOD, Minn. — The salad bar at John Glenn Middle School comes with instructions.

A sign in the Maplewood school’s cafeteria explains that the salad bar as a meal choice includes fruit, vegetables, grains/pasta, meat or meat alternatives and milk — emphasizing in bold type that students “Must take 3 of the 5 offerings including 1/2 cup fruit/vegetables.”

Kids across America have been known to grumble at fruit and vegetable mandates, whether they are issued by the schools, the feds or Mom and Dad — but thanks to Connie Sarne, assistant manager of the school kitchen, students at this middle school are learning that fruits and vegetables can actually be fun as well as delicious.

Sarne has worked in the kitchens of this school district since 1998, but her salad bar inspiration came about a month ago, when she decided to take a new approach to try to tempt the kids to take their required servings with touches like carving up a cantaloupe to look like a creature with its mouth wide open and full of cut-up pieces of fruit.

Her creations were cute — too cute to disassemble.

“The kids didn’t want to take them,” Sarne says.

So instead, Sarne put her creations on top of the salad bar, as non-edible displays, for everyone in the lunchroom to see.

Because she purchases these display fruits and vegetables (with her own money) at Aldi after her shift is over, she decided to post some photos of her work on the Aldi Nerd’s Facebook group this month

It went, as the kids say, viral.

“I got 21,000 likes and 1,900 comments and 300 shares in a couple of hours,” Sarne says. “I came back from lunch and my phone was going ‘ding ding ding ding.'”

Some of the comments:

“Love this. Those kids will never forget what you did for them.”

“Great way to encourage kids to eat fruits and vegetables!”

“More schools need people like you!”

Sarne’s efforts to get kids to see fruits and vegetables in a new way has also led to her own continuing education: When she returns home after making the students breakfast and lunch, she prepares for her next display: After she finds an idea — often on Pinterest — she breaks out the set of specialty fruit and vegetable carving tools she purchased online and gets to work, sometimes watching tutorials on YouTube to guide her along the way.

“So each day, I’ve progressed, teaching myself just a little bit more,” Sarne says.

It’s not only the students at the salad bar who have noticed her work.

“Every day, I think, ‘She can’t top this,’ but every day, they get more and more detailed and elaborate,” says Principal Jill Miklausich. “It’s been a really special surprise and addition to our lunch this year.”

Sarne better sharpen those knives, because her following is growing.

But: Are her patrons actually consuming more fruits and vegetables?

At Sarne’s home, they certainly are.

“They eat a lot of cut-up fruit; let’s put it that way,” she says.

As for the kids at school?

“It is bringing more people to the salad bar,” says Marie Carroll, nutrition services coordinator for the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale School District.

“People can be critical of school lunches,” Carroll says. “It’s nice for them to see all the fresh fruits and vegetables we serve every day.”

Sarne is glad she’s done her part to highlight the joy of food.

“It started as a way to get kids interested in fruits and vegetables,” she says. “It’s turned out to be a lot of fun for everyone.”