California Superintendent of Schools Tom Torlakson returns to Monterey County on Friday, this time in the name of health and wellness.

Torlakson will promote Team California for Healthy Kids, an initiative he launched in 2011 to spread the word about healthy eating and physical activity in schools.

One of the initiative's main goals is to increase access to fresh fruits and vegetables, particularly through salad bars in schools.

Torlakson will announce Monterey County's portion of the initiative at Fremont Elementary School in Salinas. Later, he will be the guest of honor at a luncheon at the National Steinbeck Center, where agricultural leaders and school officials will be present.

Monterey County, one of the top agricultural producers in California, has a long history of trying to improve eating habits of students, officials say.

"We go back a long way in establishing healthy eating policies, especially with leadership teams in the Alisal (Union School District)," said Nancy Kotowski, superintendent of Monterey County schools.

It is unclear how the healthy eating initiatives are working. In 2012, 40 percent of fifth-graders in Monterey County were considered high risk in their body composition, according to a statewide fitness test. Body composition includes body mass index, which measures a student's height relative to weight.

Thirty-six percent of seventh-graders and 33 percent of ninth-graders were considered at risk because of their body composition.


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Agricultural leaders have been sponsoring salad bars to be placed in schools. In November, Dole Food Company donated five salad bars to the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District.

Team California for Healthy Kids promotes physical activity and freshwater availability for children.

The initiative's goals are not just for health reasons. Studies show children who eat better perform better in school.

"There's strong research backing Healthy Kids," Kotowski said. "It shows there's fewer absences, more attentive behavior" when students are more active and have better eating habits.

It is the second time in as many months that Torlakson has come to Monterey County. In late January, he visited the Alisal Union School District to witness progress made since it regaining local control from the state.

Claudia Meléndez Salinas can be reached at 753-6755 or cmelendez@montereyherald.com.