Chloe Aguilar was on her way to jujitsu class inside the Villa-Parke Community Center in northwest Pasadena, but she had to stop and water the corn at the courtyard entrance first.
Chloe, 11, is a gardener at Villa-Parke's new community garden, where her family rents a plot in a rooftop terrace container garden and helps tend the downstairs communal beds, planted with blueberries and the "three sisters."
"That's beans, squash and corn," Chloe said. "And they all help each other grow."
She likes corn but is less sure about squash. Carrots are her favorite. Those are growing in her family's plot.
The Villa-Parke garden, part of the Little Green Fingers initiative led by the Los Angeles Conservation Corps and funded in part by First 5 LA, is all about the kids.
The five-year program aims to use community gardens as a vehicle to combat a countywide obesity epidemic among low-income, high-risk children, especially those younger than 5, by providing fresh fruit and vegetables as well as gardening and nutrition information.
"You have to have a child to have a garden here," said Chloe's grandmother, Nykki Negrann.
There are 30 families with plots at Villa-Parke, all recruited from the surrounding neighborhood, which is classified as a "food desert" — an area with limited access to fresh, healthful and affordable food — according to the Pasadena Department of Public Health.
"If you asked a kid in this community where tomatoes come from, they'll say from Vons or the store on the corner," said gardener Laura Vega, who was watering while her daughter Graciela, 10, played her guitar to the seedlings.
"We just learned that the flowers turn into fruit, the strawberry flower turns into the strawberry," Vega added happily. "And we're going to be learning composting."
"We have a tomato!" yelled Graciela, pointing at a tiny green button on a foot-high seedling.
Twenty miles north, in Sylmar, another new garden from Little Green Fingers opened this spring. The 40-plot El Cariso Mountain Garden in El Cariso Community Regional Park also is focusing on families with children, especially preschoolers.
"I so enjoy gardening," says Yolanda Taylor, who lives across the Pacoima Wash in Santiago Estates. "I've had my struggle with my demons, but one day I woke up and wanted to start gardening, finding things to treat my body. My 4-year-old helps me plant. I saw my first strawberry this morning. It's so exciting!"
So far, four of eight planned Little Green Fingers gardens have been built: in Pasadena, Sylmar, South L.A. and Koreatown.
Garden plots cost families just $3 to $6 a month, depending on size. Participants must attend 15 classes given by a master gardener working out of each garden. There are also optional nutrition and cooking classes. Attendance at monthly meetings is mandatory.
The program's effect on the health of the gardeners' children will be evaluated over several years by L.A. epidemiologist Nicole Gatto, herself a community gardener.
"Everybody knows that getting kids to eat green is better, but most of that is anecdotal," she said.
Data gathered from the first gardens established last year, in South L.A. and Koreatown, are just now being tabulated. But education is already making a difference for some at the newest gardens.
"At our monthly meetings, some people are vegetarians, which is a whole new thing for a lot of us," said Vega, recounting things she has learned. "You can bake quesadillas instead of frying in oil. You can grind spinach or any vegetable and stick it in cookies."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times