Wheelbarrows, trowels and smiles were easy to spot recently as students at Allenbrook Elementary School dug into the earth to make a place for a vegetable garden.
These children and more at 13 other Charlotte-Mecklenburg elementary schools expect to harvest enough tomatoes, spinach, peppers, garlic and basil before school is out for a make-it-yourself pizza party.
Supporters of the two-year-old Field to Fork program say produce from the schoolyard may be the best way to help students develop a taste for fresh foods when there are few stores in their neighborhoods that sell those items.
Reaching students in elementary school and teaching them to make produce an important part of their diets might also help reduce obesity rates in the long term, said Katie Cooper, Field to Fork's coordinator.
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"They're learning what their preferences are," Cooper said of elementary school children. "The program helps set them up for making healthier choices later in life."
Field to Fork gets support from the Mecklenburg County Health Department's Fruit and Vegetable Coalition, Charlotte Green, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and Fuel Pizza Café, which hosts the pizza parties.
Five elementary school gardens were built in 2010 through the program and 10 more were added last year.
About 400 students dug, planted and cooked pizzas in the program's first two years, for a cost of about $50 per garden, Cooper said.
A grant from a group of young professionals, called 704 Project, will pay for this year's gardens.
A teacher must apply to Field to Fork and request a pizza garden for his or her school. Teachers also recruit volunteers, usually parents, to help build the gardens.
The program partners arrange for someone to visit each school three times to bring lessons about gardening, nutrition and cooking.
"They love the gardening," Cooper said. "Some of them encouraged their parents to start a mini-garden or start planted pots at home."
The students take a trip to one of the seven local Fuel Pizza Cafés before the last day of school for a pizza party.
Last year, only two of more than 250 students ate a pizza without vegetables, Cooper said.
"They like the spinach," Cooper said. "They really like the basil. I think they like it even more when they know they're the ones responsible for it."