RIVERVIEW — Hailey Bell surveyed all the goodies in her elementary school's garden and then rushed to the tasting section so she could try a slice of green pepper dipped in ranch dressing.
"Not bad," said Bell, 7, a first-grader. "It tastes like lettuce. It's good."
Mary Garner, a fourth-grade teacher at Summerfield Elementary School, beamed as student after student stood in line to sample green peppers, radishes and squash.
"The goal is to get them to eat more vegetables," Garner said. "They are more interested in trying them when they have a part in growing them."
Summerfield embarked on a "teaching garden" this school year, thanks to a $15,000 grant from the American Heart Association via Citigroup. The donation covered everything from growing boxes to the soil to the plants.
Students built and planted the garden.
The kids recently enjoyed their second harvesting day. They will have even more foods to sample before the school year is over since some of the fruits and vegetables are still growing.
Garner, who is in charge of the project, said students had much more success the second time around. They got better soil, made sure to rid it of weeds and worked to figure out what crops grow best in Florida's hot and humid climate.
"We've learned a lot," she said.
Even Garner, an avid gardener, discovered a new treat thanks to the garden. Earlier this school year, the kids harvested kale and baked it into chips in the school cafeteria.
"I liked them so much I went home and made some," she said. "I had no idea kale was good."
Some of the vegetables, however, didn't appeal to the youngsters. One in particular had few fans.
Adesola Olayisade, 8, didn't like the radish. Her eyes widened and she chewed slowly as soon as she put it in her mouth.
"I like it with the ranch," said the second-grader. "But it's kind of horrible."
Principal Derrick McLaughlin likes the teaching garden on his campus because not only do students learn about healthy foods in a fun way, but teachers can also integrate the project into their curriculum.
Lily Reisman, a spokeswoman for the American Heart Association, said the project was a success because the entire school got involved in the garden.
"The teachers, principal and students are all on board," she said.
Several of the students wrote stories or poems about their gardening experience.
Second-grader Maren Earl said: "What does the teaching garden mean to me? Well, I can assure you it fills me with glee."
Monica Bennett can be reached at [email protected]