As final acts go, the Ventura school district saved its biggest production number for last.
Officials launched the district's 17th salad bar Wednesday, achieving a goal set more than two years ago to provide the leafy lunches twice a week at each of the city's elementary schools.
Sheridan Way Elementary was the last and largest of the schools to wheel out the fresh fruits and greens, serving up meals to 600 students at the largely Latino west-end campus. Waves of students washed into the cafeteria Wednesday, piling plates high with carrots and cucumbers, strawberries and sunflower seeds -- topped off with slices of lemon or splashes of dressing.
There are so many students at Sheridan Way that the district for the first time set up two salad bar lines, each crowned with colorful balloons shaped like broccoli, tomatoes and other puffed-up produce.
"I think we serve the most meals in the district, so everyone had to get their courage up for it," Principal Susan Eberhart said of being the last to go green.
"As Latinos, we have higher rates of obesity and diabetes," Eberhart said. "Now, in addition to learning math and reading, students can learn healthy eating habits so they can have long, healthy lives."
The salad bar program is part of a districtwide campaign to boost nutrition education and to build relationships with local growers.
The first salad bar project was launched in 2001 at Juanamaria Elementary School. Today, there are 5,300 elementary school students eating salad twice a week in the Ventura Unified School District and receiving regular classroom instruction on nutrition and healthful eating.
At the same time, the district has helped bolster the county's farm economy, providing more than $100,000 this school year to local growers to keep the salad bars stocked with fresh fixings. The Ventura district has become such a good customer that farmers are now custom growing produce for the salad bar programs.
"We're making a market for small farmers and helping keep them in business," said Marilyn Godfrey, coordinator for the district's Healthy Schools project.
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. Godfrey and others said the project has proven so successful in the elementary schools that they planned to introduce it in middle schools during the next academic year.
Judging by the reaction of 7-year-old Seth Peterson, it is likely to be a hit wherever it is set up.
Surveying the array of choices, the second-grader stacked jicama, lettuce, green beans and cheese onto his plate. Then he moved on to the strawberries and apricots, producing a plate so nutritionally balanced that he had trouble balancing it on his way to find a seat.
"This is so much fun," he said before digging in. "I wish we could have salad bar every day."