First-grader Austin Duncan piled his tray high the day the salad bar opened for business, stacking broccoli, strawberries and an unidentified French fry-shaped root on a bed of lettuce fresh from the farm.
Then he gave the new venture his ultimate seal of approval.
"The salad bar rocks," said the energetic 6-year-old, surveying his health-conscious creation last week at Lincoln Elementary School in Ventura.
It's the reaction educators were hoping for as more than 200 students at the small, downtown school traded in beef tamales Tuesday for fresh fruits and greens purchased from local farmers.
Lincoln is the latest campus in the Ventura Unified School District to launch a salad bar program, part of a districtwide campaign to develop good eating habits, boost nutrition education and build relationships with local growers.
Over the last year, district officials have teamed with teachers and parents to put salad bars twice a week into five elementary school cafeterias.
Juanamaria Elementary School in east Ventura was the first to go green, launching the Healthy Schools Project in the spring of 2001. Students at Sunset Elementary School in Oak View are set to step up to the salad bar next month.
Against a rising tide of children who are overweight and out of shape, the project ties into classroom lessons about food and health and promotes the development of school gardens to teach youngsters where their food comes from.
But it also aims to support local farmers, providing another outlet for their produce at a time when many are being squeezed by rising costs and global competition.
"Just doing a salad bar in the schools is no big deal, but doing a salad bar with fresh local produce is a huge deal," said Ojai tangerine grower Jim Churchill, who has helped establish the programs through his work with the Community Alliance with Family Farmers.
"I'm interested in taking this program to other districts," Churchill said. "The more schools we're in, the more money there will be for growers."
Ventura's program is rooted in a pioneering effort by the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District.
Launched six years ago, the program now offers salad bars in each of that district's 16 schools. The farm-to-school project was credited with boosting lunchtime demand for fruits and vegetables and generating tens of thousands of dollars in annual sales for local growers.
The effort also spurred creation of similar programs across the state and the nation, including salad bar projects in Berkeley, Chico and Watsonville.
"We've seen huge momentum building on this front, particularly with the increased awareness of the state of our children's health," said Marion Kalb, director of the Davis, Calif.-based National Farm-to-School Program.
"We're trying to encourage healthy eating habits in kids," Kalb said. "Our perspective on this is if we are going to help kids, why don't we help farmers at the same time."
The connection is evident twice a week at Ventura's two certified farmers' markets, where district officials buy salad fixings for nearly 2,000 students.
Salad bar specialists Marilyn Godfrey and Tammie Nelson perused the booths of the market at the Pacific View Mall recently, buying six flats of strawberries, 14 heads of lettuce and 15 pounds of sugar snap peas. Churchill delivered several boxes of tangerines.
The district spends about $3,000 a month at the outdoor markets, Godfrey said.
"This is just for six schools," said Godfrey, who oversees the Healthy Schools Project. "You can see where, as we spread out more and more, we're really going to create a good outlet for growers."
Both stood watch on opening day of the salad bar at Lincoln Elementary School.
The kindergartners came first, politely placing lettuce and tomato, ham and cheese, onto their trays. They sprinkled their creations with sunflower seeds and splashed them with ranch dressing.
Then came the more rambunctious upper-grade pupils, who infused the salad bar line with a high-octane brand of noontime energy. The noise level skyrocketed in the small cafeteria. Two boys bumped chests as they chanted, "Salad bar, salad bar, salad bar."
Lauren Elizabeth Greer, 9, was one of the quiet ones. She shuffled through the line, which snaked past photos of some of the growers responsible for the produce. The third-grader was itching for snap peas, but her eyes grew wide when she came to a bowl of giant, juicy red strawberries.
"I looooooove strawberries," said Lauren, piling plenty on her plate.
Teachers, parents and district staff lent a hand the first day, helping youngsters use the tongs and wiping up spills.
At least one teacher ate in the cafeteria with her class, teaching by example the goodness of fruits and vegetables.
"I wouldn't miss salad bar day," said fourth-grade teacher Barbara Green. "I think everyone likes the salad bar. Just look at the long line."