michelle_obama_web.jpgSpecial to South Florida Times

Cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, baby squash and basil sat on tables in the cafeteria at Riverside Elementary Monday. A salad bar was pushed close to the podium.

The vegetables set the scene for First Lady Michelle Obama’s visit to the Little Havana school, where she rolled out a national salad bar in schools program.

Obama announced that 6,000 schools nationwide would get salad bars as part of a Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools initiative. Riverside received the first bar, which can cost $2,500.

Soon the room filled with elementary school students who first fiddled with the vegetables and herbs but later ate them when encouraged by Obama.

“Vegetables are critical for your health,” Obama said. “They give you brain power and make you smarter.”

The children squealed in delight.

Obama has been campaigning to get children to follow more healthy lifestyles. She champions a program called Let’s Move! whose goal it is to stamp out childhood obesity in a generation. The program encourages healthy eating and more physical activity.

Miami-Dade Public School Board Members  Wilbert "Tee" Holloway and Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall, as well as Superintendent of Schools Alberto Carvalho, said the school district is committed to providing healthy food for students. Holloway said 28 schools already have herb and vegetable gardens.

Riverside Elementary, which has a majority Hispanic student body, headed by Erica Paramore-Respress, has its own vegetable garden that students plant in boxes.

These gardens are supported by the Education Fund, which provides from the seedlings to plant to curriculum to teach, said Kelly Foote, spokesman for the Education Fund. Started in 2007, the program sprung from two to 30 in middle and elementary schools. Its goal is 1,000 gardens for county schools.

“We had to respond to the growing obesity and diabetes rates that we see, especially in poor or disadvantaged neighborhoods,” Foote said, explaining why the Education Fund chose this initiative. Nationally, one in five young people is obese and one in three is overweight, according to an American Medical Association study in 2008.

Riverside’s garden, which takes less than $1,000 to operate, is supported by the fund's Plant A Thousand Gardens Collaborative Nutrition Initiative. Obama was impressed with the school’s efforts to maintain a container garden.

“I think your garden is pretty cool,” she said. “Even without a stitch of land you can still plant tomatoes, eggplant and kale.”

The newly unveiled program, in partnership with the United Fresh Foundation, Food Family Farming Foundation and the National Fruit & Vegetable Alliance, will put fully equipped salad bars in schools.

Schools will have to find the vegetables to put in the bar. Some will form alliances with local chefs who will help existing school kitchen staff prepare healthy and tasty salads and vegetable dishes for the bar.

Miami-Dade chefs including Michelle Bernstein, Michael Schwartz, Kris Wessel and Kenneth Lyon joined the first lady to introduce the children to the salad bar.

Lyon said that for more than a year chefs have been working on getting fresh fruits and vegetables to school children. They are almost ready to roll out vending machine-type meals for Miami-Dade high schools.

“Due to so many budget cuts, cooking in schools has become less and less,” Lyon said. “Now they mostly serve heat-and-serve type foods.”

Getting fresh food items like salads in schools takes a lot of preparation, which the current cafeteria staff cannot handle.  The idea, Lyon said, is to get students at high school with culinary academies to donate their time in helping to prepare the fresh wraps and fruits for the vending machines and the salad bar.

Still, Lyon said, pointing to the elementary school children in the room, the education and the love for vegetables should start at this age or younger.

Obama was doing her part to contribute to their education Monday. She visited each table, explaining to the children the different taste of some of the vegetables.

“Squash doesn’t really taste like anything,” Obama said at one table. “It takes the taste of what it is put into.”

Carolyn Guniss may be reached at Gunisscarolyn@msn.com.

Photo: First Lady Michelle Obama