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First-grader Beltran Dayanara selects some jicama for lunch at Marylin Avenue School in Livermore, Calif., on Monday, April 9, 2012. Her personal pizza has whole wheat crust. The elementary school was named a silver medalist in the HealthierUS School Challenge sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. (Cindi Christie/Staff)

LIVERMORE -- Ten-year-old Kevin Vega likes soccer, running and broccoli.

"When I was a baby, I thought broccoli was trees, and I was a giant," Kevin said. "Once I started eating them, I thought they were good and made me healthy, so I started eating them more often."

His little sister, Kimberly, enjoys jicama, a crunchy root vegetable high in calcium and vitamins C, A and B.

"I used to not like jicama, but now they give it at school," Kimberly said. "My grandma cuts it up, and it's very good. It has a lot of juice in it, and it's tasty and crunchy."

Kevin and Kimberly are textbook examples of how their school's increased focus on nutrition affects every student on campus. The Vega kids attend Marylin Avenue Elementary School, recently named a silver medal winner in the Healthier U.S. School Challenge promoted by first lady Michelle Obama and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The award "communicates what we value," Principal Jeff Keller said. "We not only value the education around reading, writing and math, but we strongly believe in educating the whole child. Health and nutrition play an important part of that. These are skills we want students to carry on to middle school and high school and the rest of their lives."

Marylin Avenue is the only Bay Area school recognized through this year's nationwide U.S. School Challenge. The school got a plaque and $1,000 for its cafeteria program.

"We were ecstatic," Barbara Lee, the school district's campus catering director, said of the recognition. "I have the best food service staff in the whole state, so I wasn't really surprised. When you have an incredible staff and everyone works together, then you can achieve great things."

Becoming a healthy school didn't happen overnight. Marylin Avenue leaders have worked for five years to improve nutrition and physical education among students, teachers and parents.

"The nutrition message is heard in many arenas and in many voices," Lee said. "The more that you can support that and re-emphasize that, the chances of it having an impact are that much greater."

Lee has pounded the pavement to find extra funding and establish partnerships to benefit Marylin Avenue, where 85 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches and 77 percent of the student population is Hispanic.

"We've trained a select group of parents to teach other parents (about good nutrition)," Lee said. "If each of them trains just a handful of their peers, then exponentially we've reached so many more people than you can imagine. They're helping their community that is historically in the danger zone for high risk of obesity and all the health implications that go along with that."

The school also offers family nutrition and cooking classes four times a year through a program funded by Kaiser Permanente, which also supplies a chef to lead the classes.

Veronica Vega, Kevin and Kimberly's mom, is trained to educate other parents. She's also taken her family to the school's nutrition classes.

"We think twice about what we eat," Vega said. "We've changed a lot of the ingredients we put in the food. We read all the labels on food to see the sugar, trans-fat and other ingredients. We choose healthier food."

County and state programs provide Marylin Avenue with extra resources to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. The Harvest of the Month program introduces students to one new fruit or vegetable each month. Students learn about the produce and sample it.

"Marylin students have always been really good fruit and vegetable eaters," Lee said. "It's probably because there's been so much nutrition education in the classroom."

What's good for Marylin Avenue may be good for the entire district. As the school switched to whole-grain breads and pasta, fresh produce and low-fat foods, so did all of the other schools in the district.

"We exceed the requirements with our menu," Lee said. "It's one thing to offer all that, but it's another thing to get the children to buy it and eat it. You have to educate the students and the parents so that it's familiar for them."

Lee worked with San Jose State University interns to fill out the mounds of paperwork for the U.S. School Challenge. It's a tedious process that took a full two years. But Lee plans to do it again with one goal in mind.

"We're going for the gold," she said.

Visit teamnutrition.usda.gov/healthierUS/index.html for more information about the School Challenge.

ONLINE VIDEO
See first lady Michelle Obama's
introduction to her Let's Move campaign at www.contracostatimes.com/livermore