PITTSBURG -- Five-year-old Renee Ruiz likes macaroni. But she also likes fruits and vegetables.
"I like oranges and the macaroni. Because macaroni tastes good," said Renee, who attends kindergarten at Marina Vista Elementary school where on a recent school day her lunch plate included orange wedges, applesauce, low-fat milk and a whole-grain all-beef corn dog. The menu also included chicken tortellini or a sloppy joe on a whole-grain bun.
Ruiz will have always choices that include fresh fruits and vegetables because Marina Vista rolls out a salad bar, as do all of the schools in the Pittsburg Unified School District. It's all part of a district initiative to provide students with a range of healthy food choices for breakfast and lunch, along with nutrition classes and physical activity programs that exceed state requirements.
The effort has earned Marina Vista and 10 other district schools a Healthier U.S. Schools Challenge certification award from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for promoting healthier meals and increased physical activity. The two schools that didn't get the award -- Black Diamond High School and Martin Luther King Jr. Junior High School -- opened last year and were too new to apply.
"It is truly a collaborative, team effort," said Matt Belasco, director of child nutrition services for Pittsburg Unified.
The award was established in 2004 under a voluntary initiative of the National School Lunch Program, a USDA-funded program that provides free or reduced-price meals to low-income students who attend an estimated 100,000 public and private schools and residential child-care centers nationwide. Those that earn the award pledge to continue to meet the award's certification criteria over a four-year period.
"You have put California on the map with this national recognition," Sandip Kaur, director of the nutritional services division for the California Department of Education said at a ceremony last week that acknowledged the 11 Pittsburg schools.
"I know the food service staff has to get up early every morning to make sure the kids get the food they need so they can be productive in the day," said Jesus Mendoza Jr., acting regional administrator for USDA's food and nutrition service.
Less than 7 percent of schools nationwide have earned the award. Statewide, 697 of almost 10,000 schools statewide have been honored to date. In the Bay Area, 12 schools in the Oakland Unified School District, five in the West Contra Costa Unified School District, and one in the Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District have also been honored with the award, which is given on an individual basis to schools.
"It's a small elite group of schools," Mendoza said.
About 75 percent of students who attend Pittsburg Unified schools districtwide participate in the free or reduced-price lunch program. That works to the district's advantage in helping to meet the USDA criteria established for the certification award, Mendoza said.
"That means schools have more revenues," to support healthier menus, nutrition classes and physical activity programs that benefit all students, he said.
Paul Adler, an aide to Supervisor Federal Glover, who attended Pittsburg schools, said his boss was thrilled to hear about the award. "They didn't have salad bars," and other lunchtime alternatives back when Glover attended Pittsburg High some 35 years ago, Adler quipped.
"You guys are giving the next generation more options, more healthy foods to eat," Adler said.
Contact Eve Mitchell at 925-779-7189. Follow her on Twitter.com/EastCounty_Girl.