Leslie Murphy's third-graders thronged before Jongsun Baker, bowls held out. Most of Murphy's students at Mary Peacock Elementary School were tasting black beans and edamame for the first time, and Baker couldn't dish it out fast enough. The students scooped the black bean salsa Baker made with tortilla chips and dropped soybeans in their mouth like candy. When they had eaten every morsel in their bowls, they clamored for seconds.

Baker gave a presentation on legumes before Murphy's class took off for winter break last week. The students sorted and counted lima beans, kidney beans, lentils and black-eyed peas, trying to figure out how many beans make up a two-cup jar. They took home paper Christmas trees with kidney bean ornaments. Baker said she'll bring Mandarin oranges to Murphy's class next month.

"No matter what kind of food I throw in, they're excited," she said.

Baker, a nutrition program assistant for Network for a Healthy California, is one of 12 employees who provide nutrition classes for Del Norte County Unified School District. But after 12 years, this may be the program's last year.

Nutrition Project Coordinator Deborah Kravitz said the funding California schools had received for nutrition education will be redirected to the state's public health departments starting next October. The funds are being redirected to help achieve the state's obesity prevention goals, Kravitz said. The funds will be allocated based on population, with larger counties receiving the lion's share.

Del Norte County's program could end in June 2013 if there is no change, according to a letter Kravitz wrote to the Del Norte County Unified School District Board. District Superintendent Don Olson presented Kravitz's letter to the board at its Dec. 13 meeting.

The county Health Department currently shares $250,000 in funding with Siskiyou and Trinity counties to do similar nutrition-based work, Kravitz said. Because of its size, the department will not receive additional funding that would allow for

continuing the school district's nutrition education program, she said.

Network for a Healthy California, which is funded through the California Department of Public Health, currently allocates more than $37 million in funding for nutrition education and physical activity promotion in K-12 schools, Kravitz said. Del Norte County's share is nearly $600,000.

"Our goals are basically to increase fruit and vegetable consumption and physical activity amongst our youth," Kravitz said. "If we're not successful in securing any money it will result in the loss of 12 positions within the school district, and that's pretty sad."

Despite the potential loss, there is another small pool of money that school districts can compete for, Kravitz said. She said she is hoping to partner with other school-based nutrition programs in Humboldt and Mendocino counties to form a regional program that will better compete with other school districts that are losing their nutrition programs.

"We will be very successful in going after that funding, but we do know it's a very small amount of money compared to (our) current funding," she said. "Even if we're successful, the program will be very scaled back."

In her letter to the School Board, Kravitz said she has also been working with Humboldt County-based Community Alliance of Family Farmers regarding grants through the California Department of Food and Agriculture to continue Del Norte County's Harvest of the Month program, which highlights a different food every month.

During the Board meeting, Nutrition Program Assistant Patti Rommel, who is also the district's California School Employee Association representative, said CSEA officials at the state level have been speaking with the governor and Legislature about the importance of school-based nutrition programs.

Rommel added that CSEA has also been working with large health-care agencies, including Anthem Blue Cross, Blue Shield and Cigna, to build momentum for a bond referendum for the 2014 ballot.

"I've been doing (this) for six years," Rommel said. "We've been a model program for 12 years now."

Murphy said her students always look forward to Baker's visits. Whether the Harvest of the Month topic is radishes or broccoli, Murphy said they often incorporate the foods they learn about in their school lunches.

"They're excited to pull things out of their lunch box and show me," she said. "It will be a shame to see it go away. It brings so much to students in the way they look at nutrition and the importance of taking their health seriously."

Reach Jessica Cejnar at jcejnar@triplicate.com.