Remember school lunches? Those tater tots and ochre-colored hamburgers, the canned green beans and — what was it? — “Chef’s Surprise”?

Things are different now in Ventura County. Farm-to-school programs are bringing fresh food and nutrition education to the citizens who need it most: our children. Utilizing locally grown produce and other products from area farms, county schools are feeding children nutritiously while teaching them about the advantages of growing and eating healthy foods. And our local farmers are benefiting.

Sure, Shaq’s Big Challenge, the reality TV show about helping obese children get healthy, may be entertaining, but Shaquille O’Neal is not the only one making a difference for youngsters. Ventura Unified’s Sandy VanHouten-Curwood, director of Child Nutrition Services, and her team are making healthy eating habits a priority. Ventura’s program, called the Healthy Schools Project, “has been used as a model in California as well as other schools across the country,” according to VanHouten-Curwood.

The program features three components: farm to school salad bars, nutrition education and garden-based learning. VanHouten-Curwood describes these components as “local, sustainable produce featured in the cafeterias, garden-based learning tied to core-curriculum and state standards, [and] classroom nutrition education which features cooking in the classroom and harvest of the month.” She says other environmental topics such as recycling and vericomposting are covered as well. They even cover salad bar etiquette so students know how to serve themselves healthy meals. Selected components were introduced in 2000-01; now, all 25 schools in the district have implemented Farm-to-School salad bars, while many incorporate all three components.

Goals of the program include giving students guidance in making healthy food choices through hands-on experiences with fresh produce and supporting local farmers by linking the agricultural community with schools. Through the gardening component, students get the satisfaction of taste-testing what they grow, and some of it even ends up in the salad bar. They gain a new way of thinking about their food and where it comes from.

Food For Thought, Ojai’s Healthy Schools Program, includes five integrated elements: salad bar, nutrition education, agricultural literacy, recycling and garden-based learning. The salad bar, offered once a week, utilizes as much local, seasonal fresh food as possible. Marty Fujita, vice president and founder of Food For Thought, describes the positive results of school gardens in Ojai schools, which are successful because student involvement is so pronounced. At Topa Topa Elementary, for instance, garden clubs have formed with 50-70 kids joining. Members work in the school garden at recess and after school; they conduct their own farmer’s market at the end of the school year.

Initially, Food for Thought subsidized the schools, buying the salad bar equipment, for instance, and delivering produce. A good deal of the funding for staff salaries and operation costs comes from events they host, like the upcoming Locally Grown 2. This year, with a grant from an anonymous donor, they will begin a new component on solid waste, helping students analyze the waste they produce. Using estimates which claim students generate 200-300 pounds of waste just in their time at school — 40 percent paper, 30 percent food waste and 30 percent plastic and other waste — they hope to encourage students to think in terms of the three R’s: reduce, recycle, rot.

The county’s strong agricultural background contributes to the success local schools experience in establishing these viable programs. Working together, local farmers and area schools have created a successful means of improving the health and well-being of Ventura County’s public school students while promoting agricultural sustainability. Ventura Unified, for example, now spends more than $100,000 with local farmers each school year, according to Joanna Lefebvre in her article for Food Management magazine “A Greenprint for Healthy Kids.” The Gold Coast Growers Collaborative, a coalition of small family farms, serves all 25 schools in VUSD as well as the five elementary schools in Ojai. “VUSD has become such a good customer that farmers are now custom-growing produce for the salad bar program,” Lefebvre says. Rodriquez Farms in Oxnard, for instance, supplies strawberries.

While Farm to School programs grow in popularity across the country — Anupama Joshi, Director of the National Farm to School Program, estimates approximately 1,000 programs now running in 32 states — California, with established programs in at least 30 districts, is interested in “advancing and institutionalizing the Farm to School concept throughout the state,” according to the National Farm to School Web site. Successful programs in Ventura and Ojai schools could play a leading role in furthering such a mandate.