When students at Caroline Harris Elementary School go to lunch, the cafeteria isn’t dishing out sloppy joes, mystery meatloaf or anything else from the smorgasbord of less-than-healthy options.

They’re getting roasted chicken with locally sourced vegetables, fresh chef salads, and Taco Nada, a take on the traditional taco made with lean ground turkey instead of beef.

The healthy options are just one of the reasons why Harris Elementary was awarded a Healthier U.S. School Challenge gold recognition by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The award, which was delivered during a ceremony Friday, honors schools that create healthy environments by promoting good nutrition, physical activity and nutrition education.

Harris Elementary is just one of two schools to receive gold recognition in California, and one of 2,895 nationwide to be honored in some way. More than 100,000 schools competed.

At the assembly, kids passed around apples – a special treat for their hard work – and held up hand-crafted signs reading: “We love vegetables,” “We love Health” and “Healthy Harris Hawks.”

“Obviously, our healthy habits are working,” said Harris Principal Anne Lopez, pointing to rising language arts and reading scores as a testament to the notion that a healthy body creates a healthy mind.

And that’s important in Kern County, where roughly 47 percent of all fifth grade students are considered overweight or obese – 7 percentage points higher than the state average, according to the Lucille Packard Foundation for Children’s Health.

And at the Bakersfield City School District, the inner-city district where Harris Elementary is located, the numbers are worse. Roughly 55 percent of fifth graders are considered overweight, data show.

Harris students, however, have bucked both the state, county and district averages. Just 35 percent of fifth grade students there are considered obese or overweight – 20 percentage points lower than the district average. 

That could be because of the program they've created to encourage healthy lifestyles.

Students at Harris participate in danzas folkloricas, a traditional Mexican style of folk dance; track and field; and even Zumba. They get nutrition lessons about the food they’re eating so they understand why it’s a good choice. After school, parents can participate in a program called Now We’re Cooking, which offers free lessons for parents and students on how to prepare low-cost meals.

“There are many people in our city who aren’t healthy,” Bakersfield Mayor Karen Goh said during the Friday ceremony. “But I am so proud that the Harris Hawks are making a commitment and working hard to stay healthy.”

The USDA program stresses portion control at a young age as a means to create good lifelong eating habits, said Jesus Martinez, a regional administrator for the USDA food and nutrition services program.

One of the goals of the USDA program is to create better health outcomes for kids and reduce rates of obesity and diabetes throughout the region, Martinez said.

“We think it will take a generation,” Martinez said.

Harold Pierce covers education and health for The Californian. He can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter @RoldyPierce

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