Nearly 40 percent of the freshman students at Pacifica in the Oxnard Union High School District aren’t at what nutritionists consider to be a healthy weight. Thirty-seven percent of the ninth grade students at Santa Paula High School aren’t at a healthy weight, either. One in four freshmen at Buena High School in Ventura also has weight issues.

According to the results of a 2008-2009 physical fitness test for body composition — the most updated survey available — Ventura County has a growing problem. And it starts on the lips and ends on the hips for too many local youngsters. But it isn’t just a problem for high school kids. Overweight issues can begin within the first couple of years for some children. Statistics are especially alarming for Ventura County’s low-income families, where 34.6 percent of children, ages 2 to 4, fall into the overweight/obese category; for children ages 5 to 19, 43.7 percent are considered overweight or obese.

Nicole Tanner, Ph.D., who works with the child advocacy public program, First 5 of Ventura County, said statistics show that one in three children is obese in the United States. This epidemic, which is not only a national problem but hits home with local families, and her own personal experiences, spurred her into action, creating a “pilot program” in cooperation with local restaurants to offer healthy, low-calorie meals for children.

“When I take my kids out to eat, meals tend to be high-fat, high-carb foods,” she said. “I want to feed our kids healthy food. What I want as a healthy experience as a mom dovetails with the pilot program.”

For one week, Feb. 20-27, around a dozen restaurants in downtown Ventura will be offering free, healthy meals with the purchase of a regular (adult) meal.

These “good for kids” meals will include: one complete meal consisting of a lean protein, fresh fruit, a non-fried veggie and a beverage without added sugar; at least one fresh fruit, vegetable and a whole-grain option as sides; a vegetarian option; a beverage including water, 100 percent juice and nonfat, 1 percent or 2 percent milk or chocolate milk; and a healthy dessert option. Each participating restaurant will have a poster in the window that reads: Good for Kids, First 5 Ventura County.

“We will be launching in Ventura next week and are going to be, in the next month, bringing it to Oxnard, Ojai, the Conejo Valley and beyond,” she said. “We are definitely working on it.”

Only a couple of counties in California — Shasta and San Diego — have similar programs with a slightly different approach, and they are funded in different ways.

Tanner said eating healthy at restaurants is only a small part of the equation and that eating nutritious meals at home and school is critical in maintaining healthy body weight. Though some would say that government shouldn’t interfere with private and personal business, restaurants have chosen to voluntarily participate in the program, she said.

For more information and a list of participating restaurants, go to www.first5ventura.org/story/good-kids-free.