It’s surprising how many kids reach for broccoli and cauliflower at the lunchtime salad bar in Yakima’s Robertson Elementary School.

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These are kindergartners, first-graders and third-graders during the early lunch periods. And, sure, yeah, they have pizza on their trays, too. Or spaghetti. But they also have salad, fruits and vegetables.

“I got spaghetti with one cucumber and two oranges,” says kindergartner Maryjane Arrisola. “My favorite food is oranges.”

A school district-wide increase in menu choices this year has encouraged students at Robertson to eat healthier. And a switch last year to whole wheat in things such as corn dogs and pizza crusts helped the school earn bronze-level recognition and $500 from the federal Department of Agriculture’s Healthier U.S. Schools Challenge. But it’s the salad bar, added two years ago, where the emphasis on healthy food is most obvious. The school has always served fruits and vegetables; the difference now is that students get to choose from selections such as carrots, celery, broccoli, cauliflower, pineapple and oranges.

“Our kids are definitely eating more — and eating healthier,” says principal Mark Hummel. “There’s definitely a lot less food getting thrown away.”

The Healthier U.S. Schools Challenge, established in 2004, rewards schools that voluntarily work to improve childhood health through nutrition and exercise. Robertson Elementary is one of 74 schools statewide to earn recognition this year. The Department of Agriculture instituted the challenge program in response to increasing rates of childhood obesity. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that, as of 2010, more than one-third of adults are obese and 17 percent of children are obese. Compounding that is the link between poverty and obesity in the United States, revealed by numerous studies.

About 21 percent of Yakima residents live at or below the poverty line, according to Census information. That’s nearly twice the statewide level of 12.5 percent. And about 90 percent of the 515 students at Robertson Elementary are on the free or reduced-cost lunch program based on their families’ financial hardship. That makes feeding them good, nourishing foods at school even more important, Hummel says.

“A lot of our kids are not coming to school having had a healthy breakfast,” he says.

Deb Currier, the school’s kitchen manager, watches the students closely to make sure they’re getting everything they need. She says the response to the changes in the lunch program has been overwhelmingly positive. She’s been with the district for 17 years and remembers the old days when lunch workers just plopped whatever the day’s entree was onto students’ trays whether the kids liked that food or not.

“With the options, it gets kids more interested,” Currier says. “The different types of fruits and vegetables are appealing to them.”

Third-grader Victor Cuevas appreciates the improvement.

“We get to choose our own food,” he says, eating a lunch that includes a self-chosen side of broccoli. “And we can get the food we like and we don’t have to get the food we don’t like.”

• Pat Muir can be reached at 509-577-7693 or pmuir@yakimaherald.com.