Working with chef Andrew Nowak, who is also an officer for the activist group Slow Food Denver, Lesh put out a call for interested schools with gardens last year.

"We asked them to grow mainly cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and squash for the salad bar," he said.

In this first pilot year, 11 schools supplied up to 20 percent of their produce needs at the peak of the harvest, Nowak estimates. They also harvested and froze hundreds of pounds of pumpkin destined for cranberry-pumpkin breads.

"I can't tell you how proud the kids were to pick vegetables at the beginning of the week and then see them on the salad bar a couple of days later," said Nowak, who helped develop safety guidelines for the growing and handling of the food.

With Denver's limited growing season and the gardens' limited acreage, the program was never designed to replace the district's produce vendors, Nowak said, but to augment the produce and "connect the kids to their food in a meaningful way."

This month, Lesh said, he will write a check to pay for produce the schools harvested.

"I have to buy this anyway," he said. "So why not give the money back to the district schools rather than somebody else?"

The gardens, planted and tended by adult volunteers and students, even provide green summer jobs to students who are willing to water and weed, Lesh said.

Similar garden-to-school programs include Berkeley's Edible Schoolyard Program and the Baltimore school district's 33-acre Great Kids Farm, which provides learning opportunities for students and produce for an after-school meals program.

Closer to home, the Elgin-centered U-46 district, the second largest in the state, is developing a proposal to use up to 5 acres of city land for growing cafeteria produce and for teaching.

Though still in the planning and grant-writing stages, the program's "ultimate goal is to let students experience the whole food cycle," said Claudie Phillips, food service director for district U-46. "When kids are involved in the growing process and buy into the concept and see the end product, that's when the whole thing works."

Phillips said she is grateful for the support of district Superintendent Jose Torres. "It's a dream to have the district head understand that healthier kids are better students and that food and nutrition can play a part," she said.

Merrigan of the USDA said school gardens can help feed students' minds, if not their bellies. She mentioned several recent studies on the topic, including one she co-authored with Michelle Ratcliffe, a doctoral student at Tufts University.

"She found that children who engaged in garden-based learning did better on their standardized test scores, were more environmentally aware and were willing to try and consume more fruits and vegetables, even beyond what they saw in the garden," Merrigan said.

Chef David Blackmon, who oversees CPS career programs in hospitality, the culinary arts and agricultural science, said he believes he can bring the three disciplines together. Despite current regulations, he hopes to persuade the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences and Marshall High School to allow CPS culinary students to incorporate garden produce into special cafeteria offerings during the next school year.

"If a dish comes from the garden and it's made by one of their friends," Blackmon said, "I think the kids will be much more likely to try it over the same old pizza, nachos, burgers and chicken patties."

meng@tribune.com