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Rhonda Vera and her daughter Velia Vera, 7, purchase a bag full of vegetables and fruits from Jacinto Obrera, an afterschool program teacher, at the Oakland Fresh Produce Market at Melrose Leadership Academy in Oakland, Calif. on Wednesday, May 11, 2011. The Oakland Unified School District has 12 schools participating in the Oakland Fresh School Produce Markets program sponsored by the Oakland Unified School District Nutrition Services and the East Bay Asian Youth Center. The program was created to build a school-based local food system that increases access to fresh, healthy and affordable food for Oakland residents and promotes healthy school environments for the children and their families. (Laura A. Oda/Staff)

In Oakland neighborhoods where liquor stores offer wilted produce and ubiquitous fast-food outlets tempt parents seeking a quick, inexpensive family meal, 12 farmers markets have opened at elementary and middle schools since 2006.

In addition, 13 more of the weekly markets -- which sell affordable, pesticide-free produce fresh from the fields, nuts, beans, honey, eggs, olive oil and other products -- will open by September at campuses.

The expansion is among the enduring accomplishments of a $35 million, statewide anti-obesity initiative funded by the California Endowment, a foundation focused on improving the health of many by enhancing communities.

Salad bars, nutritious entrees, low-fat baked chips, fruit and other healthy offerings drew more kids into school cafeterias. Revenue increased more than 80 percent at two Oakland schools whose sales were analyzed after they introduced healthier cafeteria fare.

"We underestimate what kids want," said Marion Standish, director of the California Endowment's community health program. "The fact of the matter is that kids wanted better food."

The endowment last year wrapped up its five-year anti-obesity campaign in six cities and eight counties across the state. The selected areas, including Oakland, faced major challenges of growing girths. One-third of Oakland's fifth-, seventh- and ninth-graders are overweight or obese, according to the state's Department of Education.

Less-threatening foods proved hugely popular.

At Oakland's Melrose Leadership Academy last week, only a few handfuls of cherries were left at the produce stand after a rush of students descended on it when school let out. Half of the strawberries were sold, the market's manager said. A stand with cups of melon sprinkled with chili pepper and lime did a steady business.

Student Rosa Gonzalez, 12, bought a bag of kumquats and, for her niece, a watermelon cup.

"They have lots of healthy things you can get," she said. "And they're good and they're fresh."

Rosa wrinkled her nose at buying vegetables or fruit elsewhere in the neighborhood. The produce from the local corner store wasn't good, she said.

The endowment-financed program also helped youths recognize the power of advertising, Standish said. "They really came to understand that they were targets of advertising and promotional campaigns that weren't doing them any good."

The Alameda County Public Health Department, the East Bay Asian Youth Center and the Oakland Unified School District were partners with the endowment in developing the Oakland program.

Over the hills, students at a Walnut Creek high school also embraced an after-school healthy cooking program started by restaurateur Cindy Gershen in February.

About 100 Las Lomas High School students regularly join in, and Gershen plans to bring the program to Pittsburg High School, Vicente Martinez High School in Martinez and Mount Diablo High School in Concord.

"Kids love to cook," Gershen said in an email. "They love to eat, they love to learn, they love to cook for others."

The Wellness City Challenge, a Walnut Creek nonprofit, the Kiwanis Club and the Rotary Club all fund Gershen's local crusade to tackle the obesity crisis.

The foundation's five-year initiative won't change stubborn rates of excess weight, an evaluation of the program released last week emphasized. There was no average drop in weight among students in the communities funded by the endowment, nor was it expected.

However, a slight increase in physical activity was noted among schools with the worst exercise rates during physical education classes.

Among the initiative's achievements, the "Oakland Fresh School Produce Markets" stand out. The California Endowment, with $3.1 billion in assets, gave the seed money to open two school produce stands in 2006 at Garfield and Franklin elementary schools.

The eager response from students and parents caught administrators' attention, and now 12 Oakland schools host the weekly produce markets. The stands are open to the public and draw many residents.

The district's nutrition services department commitment to getting healthier food onto students' tables at school and at home was crucial to the program's success.

"Someone who is not well-fed will not learn well," said Jennifer LeBarre, the nutrition services director.

"They can get lousy produce at the liquor stores," she said. "We wanted to really serve a need that was missing.

"I was at Hoover (Elementary School) and the kids were running to the produce market, they were running, for apple samples and a cooking demonstration."

She has little doubt that the expansion of healthy food options at Oakland schools will continue.

With about $100,000 in annual sales, the produce stands break even. With the help of business consultants paid for by the endowment, next year the Oakland Unified School District will take control of the produce markets. By September, the district, in partnership with the East Bay Asian Youth Center, will open 13 more, including the first at a high school.

The California Endowment initiative also redesigned four Oakland schoolyards, giving youngsters a secure place to play after school and on weekends. Four more similar Oakland schoolyard upgrades are due.

Contact Suzanne Bohan at 510-262-2789. Follow her at Twitter.com/suzbohan.

SCHOOL PRODUCE MARKET SCHEDULE
The markets are in Oakland, and open to the public.
  • Bridges Academy: 2:30-5:30 p.m. Tuesdays
    n Community United & Futures School: 12:30-5 p.m. Wednesdays
  • East Oakland Pride: 12:30-6 p.m. Wednesdays
  • Esperanza & Fred Korematsu Discovery Academy: Noon-3 p.m. Wednesdays
    n Franklin Elementary: 1:30-6 p.m. Tuesdays
  • Garfield Elementary: 2:30-6 p.m. Tuesdays
  • Global Family & Learning Without Limits: 1-6 p.m. Wednesdays
    n Hoover Elementary School: 2:15-6 p.m. Tuesdays
    n Manzanita Community School: 2:15-6 p.m. Wednesdays
  • Melrose Leadership Academy: Noon-4 p.m. Wednesdays
    n New Highland Academy & Rise: 2:15-6 p.m. Tuesdays
  • Parker Elementary School: 1:30-4:30 p.m. Tuesdays