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They say the best way to get a kid to adopt a healthy lifestyle is to involve them in the food-preparation process. For many years, this was the focus of nutritionists and health advocates — getting families to cook together.

But many communities are taking this concept one step further by planting community gardens in elementary and middle schools. Kids are taught to prepare the land, plant seeds and harvest vegetables. Dommerich Elementary is the most recent example of this fast-moving trend. The school just completed seven 4-by-16 inch planters, which were funded by a Winter Park Health Foundation grant.

Using community gardening as a vehicle to drive children closer to their food source, thereby helping them make more healthful food decisions, is a concept recently made famous by First Lady Michelle Obama, who has launched a nationwide campaign against childhood obesity.

Although community gardens have only recently made their debut on the national stage, they have been around for decades. The National Gardening Association has been giving community and youth gardens a hand through donations and grants since 1982. According to data NGA collected in 2005, nearly half of their grant recipients have been public schools with almost 40,000 students participating.

“I recognize that youth gardening programs represent a tremendous opportunity for children to understand and explore the natural world, as well as learn first-hand the benefits of growing, harvesting, and eating healthy foods. It’s called the ‘people-plant connection’, and every child deserves an opportunity to have access to this relationship,” NGA President Mike Metallo says on the NGA website.

“Is there any greater satisfaction — or “greener” activity — a child can experience than smelling a flower from his or her own garden, plucking a carrot from the ground, or digging new potatoes from warm soil? What can make parents happier than hearing their child tell them they want chard for dinner?” he continued.

Not only do community gardens introduce more healthful eating habits, they also provide unique, hands-on learning opportunities for students working them. At Dommerich, fifth-graders will use flowers from the garden to study in their biology class and fourth-graders studied herbs and spices to supplement their lessons on Native Americans.

Perhaps the most important effect youth gardens have, particularly in impoverished neighborhoods, is getting nutrient-rich foods into the bellies of children and their families. Fresh fruits and vegetables can be expensive in the grocery store, especially plants such as kale, raspberries and squash. These gardens can subsidize family budgets and ensure kids will be interested in eating the product, since they had a hand in growing it.

Other Orange County Public Schools have gardens — Camelot Elementary’s garden has won awards and Audubon Park Elementary recently planted an organic garden. Now we have to work on getting youth gardens in every Orange County school. After all, why should only some of our children reap these benefits?