ST. PETERSBURG — At four round work tables, fresh vegetables sizzled in skillets and flatbreads warmed on electric griddles.
Fifth-grade students at James B. Sanderlin PK-8 IB World School bounced from cutting boards to noodle-filled ladles on a recent Thursday, preparing a meal using tomatoes, eggplant, squash and other ingredients from the school's garden.
Since 2009, the Edible Peace Patch Project, a nonprofit organization, has promoted health education and sustainability in several schoolyard gardens and cafeterias. Volunteers tend the gardens and teach science lessons with all grades. On "Wellness Kitchen" days, students harvest ripe vegetables from those gardens and learn to prepare a meal, aided by Peace Patch volunteers.
"We could grow food all day long, but if we're not getting it into the kids' stomachs, if we're not getting them to eat it, then we're not making that connection that we want to make," said Aleta Kane, garden coordinator for the project. "It's almost too ideal to hear these kids say, 'Wow, I grew this' and 'Wow, I cooked it.' "
On a recent Wellness Kitchen day at Sanderlin, the menu featured Mediterranean pasta accompanied by Mexican flatbread.
"All of the volunteers were helping us, making the flatbread pizza," Tass McCreedy, 11, said. "Making the dough was especially fun."
Recipes are provided by All Children's Hospital to promote healthy eating habits, which matches the Peace Patch's mission to fight diet-related health issues in children. Anita Jimenez, a chef and cooking instructor for the hospital, developed recipes for the project.
"The kids will be able to see the plants or the fruits of the plants in the garden, and we can use those," Jimenez said. "They can see the whole cycle."
The Sanderlin students rolled up their sleeves and kneaded dough into balls. They sprinkled cheese to melt on top of the bread and listened to volunteers talk about cooking and becoming a chef.
"Some of them have never cooked at home or they had never had that opportunity to, so this is a really different experience," said Carrie Kirkpatrick, a fifth-grade teacher. "For some kids, it's harder for them to be excited about school, so it's good for them to be working hands-on."
Sanderlin's garden, begun in 2012, was the second of five initially installed in St. Petersburg. The others were placed at Campbell Park, Lakewood, Maximo and Melrose elementaries. This year, the project is expanding to two additional schools — John Hopkins Middle School and Fairmount Park Elementary.
Diane Friel, 49, has volunteered in the gardens with students from Eckerd College. She said she wanted to help use the vegetables and work with the kids.
"This is so awesome, the way they're integrating the program and bringing it home," Friel said. "You close that loop between what you buy in the grocery story and where it comes from and the parts of the plant."
Antonio Smith, 11, had never held a knife before. He rubbed his eyes with his sleeve as his eyes watered from cutting onions. He shuffled between tables, looking for more work to do. Around him, classmates were measuring oregano and slicing peppers.
Trinity Brevil, 11, picked and tasted a cherry tomato from the garden. Her eyes grew wide and she reached for another.
"It tastes amazing," she said. "It tastes fresher, not like in the store."