A colorful, token-adorned plastic necklace hung heavy on first-grader Abe Seybert's neck as he walked into the Morning Star Elementary gym Thursday morning.

His schoolmates wore similar adornments to an assembly held to recognize school students and staff for their healthy food and exercise choices.

The crowd cheered loudly as principal Nonnie Hughes, in a navy blue track suit, held the U.S. Department of Agriculture's HealthierUS School Challenge Gold award above her head.

Started in 2006, the federal agency's program recognizes schools that do an exceptional job promoting nutrition and physical activity, an agency statement said. Like Olympic medals, there are three levels: gold, silver and bronze.

Morning Star was the fourth school in Bozeman and the seventh in the state to be honored with the designation. Whittier and Hawthorne schools previously received gold awards and Longfellow garnered a bronze.

Out of more than 100,000 schools nationwide, only 680 have been honored with the award. Of those, 399 were gold.

The neckwear worn by most of the kids Thursday indicated how many miles they had walked or run during the year as participants of the school's Mile Club -- one of the activities that helped the school achieve the federal agency's recognition.

The Mile Club encourages children to walk or run during their lunch breaks or after school. For every five miles a child completes, they get a brightly colored, foot-shaped "toe token," which they string on chains. Each 25-mile mark gets a number marker and kids get a larger foot bead for every 100 miles they walk or run.

Seybert sported three large feet, several number markers and a vivid array of small feet around his neck. He was the school's record-holder Thursday with 325 miles so far.

After the program, Seybert said he runs three to four miles after lunch every day and runs another two to three after school. He also runs on the weekends. His longest run was 19.5 miles, he said.

His father Eric Seybert said his son insisted they take their workout clothes with them on vacation so they wouldn't miss a run.

Seybert often runs with his friend and fellow first-grader, Boone Trafton, who has 317 miles under his feet.

"I just like doing it with my friends," Seybert said.

Close behind Seybert in miles was Bryce Lingle, with 324. Hughes called all three boys to the front during the assembly Thursday.

Lingle, in fifth grade, told the crowd he runs with his dad who inspired him when he decided to run a 10-killameter kilometer race in honor of wounded warriors returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

As recipients of the award, all of the Morning Star students received a Frisbee, jump rope or small backpack.

Julie Paradis, administrator for the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service, said she is impressed with the Bozeman community's commitment to healthy lifestyles.

"You have to make the commitment" when you apply for this award, she said. And winning it is "another example of the support" from school boards, teachers, administrators, parents, food service personnel and students.

"It's a great collaborative effort," she said.

Hughes agreed, saying parents built the school's track and teachers helped write and execute curriculum that incorporate healthy choices.

The school's food service helped by responding to requests for salads at lunch and providing tastings last year of different foods for the kids to try. Their favorite was a baked potato bar with several choices of toppings, she said.

But "they've been real willing to try things," she said of the youngsters.

Jodi Hausen can be reached at jhausen@dailychronicle.com or 582-2630. Read her blog at jhausen.wordpress.com or follow her on Twitter @bozemancrime.

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