Chris, an Ebinport Elementary fourth-grader, took a deep breath as he prepared to taste lettuce and radishes for the first time.
First a small bite. Then another. And another. Then a thumbs-up.
Its really awesome, he said.
Why did the 10-year-old, who saw leafy greens as gross, bother to sample salad in the first place?
Because, Chris said, he and classmates raised the veggies from seeds.
I wanted to try it, he said.
Thats the hook Principal Shane Goodwin and a group of parent volunteers at the Rock Hill school are banking on with Ebinport Gardens.
What started as an idea for a patch of plants where science lessons could bloom, has blossomed into a school-wide learning laboratory with potential to turn children toward fresher, healthier eating.
As calls sound for schools to dramatically improve the quality of food served in cafeterias across the country, officials worry a sharp turn to healthy, but unfamiliar fare will cause students to toss meals in the trash rather than eat.
But if Ebinports first Harvest Day was an indication, those officials might be wrong.
Several hundred students lined up during lunch on April 25 all by choice to taste the gardens first bounty. Parent volunteers Mark and Kelly Sebastian served mounds of bright green lettuce with sliced radishes, a splash of dressing and a sprinkle of croutons or sesame seeds.
The side salads accompanied meals students brought from home or bought in the lunch line.
By the end of each meal shift, dozens of salad plates lay picked clean beside trays of half-eaten, processed chicken sandwiches and beef nuggets.
School lunch is good as long as you eat a salad like this with it, second-grader Noah Lee said.
The Sebastians were astounded by the winding line of little locavores.
I really didnt expect this many kids to be interested, Mark Sebastian said. Im surprised by how many are trying the radishes.
Its fantastic, Kelly Sebastian said. Im so encouraged.
Down and dirty
Ebinports efforts are bearing fruit as U.S. leaders, health experts and parents urge educators to play a larger role in encouraging children to adopt healthy lifestyles.
Officials want schools to do away with the processed, fast-food fare dominating menus across York County and the rest of the country.
New federal rules, taking effect this year, require schools to double the amount of fruits and vegetables served, increase whole grains, serve only low-fat or fat-free milk and limit trans fats. By 2022, schools must cut the amount of sodium served in half.
A poll released this month by the Pew Charitable Trusts Kids Safe and Healthful Foods Project shows most Americans favor improving food sold in school.
Eighty percent support a national nutritional standard for competitive foods like snacks and drinks sold a la carte.
Health advocates say school gardens are crucial to inspiring children to embrace fresher fare.
Ebinports garden sprouted last fall with fourth-grade teachers who wanted a place for hands-on lessons.
In October, the Sebastians and Kelly Scott, parents who sit on the schools improvement council, ran with the idea.
With Principal Goodwins support, they laid a foundation, built raised beds and started planting. Goodwin got help and donations from local businesses and nonprofits.
Their passion spread around campus. Other parents and grandparents built benches and bought seeds. Members of a local garden club help tend the plots.
A once drab, grass patch surrounded by air-conditioner units is now a courtyard oasis where students tend more than 30 types of plants.
Everything is grown organically, without pesticides or chemicals.
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