What happens when an aspiring teen chef from South L.A. meets the U.S. surgeon general?

Xiaxiang English, 18, wants to be a chef. On Friday, she had her best-known customer yet — the surgeon general of the United States.

“I call it the beet-and-chard salad,” the Fremont High School senior told Dr. Vivek Murthy, standing outside in the South Los Angeles garden where English is an apprentice. Both of the dish’s namesake ingredients came from the garden. So did the lemons in the dressing.

English interned in the garden during the last school year for its 12-week program, and this year, she gets paid $800 to spend two to three hours at the garden each week, creating nutritious recipes and making them for about 40 other students in the Gardening Apprenticeship Program.

Murthy was at the garden Friday to highlight community efforts that promote nutrition and access to fresh fruits and vegetables as a preventive health measure — particularly in food deserts like South L.A., where residents often don’t have access to fresh produce.

Fremont High School owns the land where the garden sits, while the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust leases the land and runs the garden and the after-school Gardening Apprenticeship Program. The program costs about $100,000 annually, said Mark Glassock, director of special projects for the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust. 

There are gardens around the school district that expose students to healthy foods, but for English, it’s also the first step to her dream career, she said. The pay is just a stipend — the $800 covers between 140 and 150 hours in the after-school program over the year — but she’s being paid to make food, with access to fresh ingredients.

The ability to look at available nutritious foods and make a tasty meal is one that more chefs need, Murthy said.

“Sometimes in our country, we have this belief that food’s either healthy or it’s tasty,” Murthy said. “But that’s a false choice. The reality is that we can create foods that are healthy and tasty, and the more we have chefs who understand the importance of good nutrition, as well as the importance of good taste, I think the better chances we have of being a healthy country.”

English cooks at home but didn’t know how to hold a knife properly when she started last year, said Éli Martinez, the garden and youth program manager. This program has taught her the fundamentals, such as different chopping techniques.

On Friday, English showed off her skills: As Murthy stood next to her, she quickly peeled and chopped the beets that the doctor and other students had just harvested. Those created a sweet, smooth beet juice, which Murthy held onto and sipped for the rest of the visit.

Funding for the garden program comes in part from the California Community Foundation and the California Endowment.

Education Matters, a digital initiative of The Times, receives funding from a number of foundations. The California Community Foundation and United Way of Greater Los Angeles administer grants from the Baxter Family Foundation, the Broad Foundation, the California Endowment and the Wasserman Foundation to support this effort. Under terms of the grants, The Times retains complete control over editorial content. 

Reach Sonali Kohli on Twitter @Sonali_Kohli or by email at Sonali.Kohli@latimes.com.

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