The preschoolers walked in a single-file line across the blacktop playground to a macaroni-shaped garden bed of dirt.
Then the students at Sixth Avenue Elementary School in central Los Angeles listened as they were taught to till the soil, spread it out and dig fingertip-sized holes.
“First thing we’re going to plant are collards,” said Celeste Holley, who oversees the garden. She poured seeds into her palm, drawing “oohs!” from the children. Eighteen pairs of tiny hands caked with soil then shot up, vying to plant the first seed at the school’s new garden.
“You’ll get to see it grow,” she told them, as they stuck their hands in the dirt. “It’s yours.”
The garden at Sixth Avenue Elementary is one of 11 in the Los Angeles area installed by the Kitchen Community. The Colorado-based nonprofit group has built 120 gardens at schools across the country that are designed to help introduce nutritious food into the lives of students, fight obesity and give youngsters an engaging place to learn.
On Thursday, the Kitchen Community announced a $2-million effort -- of which about $1 million has been raised -- to build 60 additional gardens by the end of the year. The group is accepting applications from Los Angeles-area schools.
“Building one garden in L.A. -- it might be a nice gesture -- but it won’t make a difference,” said Kimbal Musk, the group’s co-founder. “We have to start to change the culture of the community.”
The gardens serve as outdoor classrooms and are planted with organic vegetables, fruits and herbs chosen by the school community. At Sixth Avenue, one class asked for greens -- arugula, lettuce, cabbage -- while another asked for herbs, among other suggestions.
School gardens are often in far-off corners of the campus, making it difficult for students to interact with it, said Musk, the brother of Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla Motors Inc. and SpaceX.
The Kitchen Community gardens are placed in playgrounds, without fences, and the food is grown within beds that are high enough for students to comfortably work in without getting too dirty, he said. The group installs shade and seating for teachers who wish to teach lessons outside.
“They are very easy for kids to play in, for teachers to teach in,” Musk said. “The kids love it. It’s a positive experience for everyone.”
Teacher Kevin Morris’ fourth-grade class was eager to get to work. “Any time they can get out of the class and touch dirt -- they get pretty excited,” he said, adding that he’s tailored lessons to utilize the garden to match California science standards.
The gardens are especially important to urban schools such as Sixth Avenue, where students often don’t get the chance to learn about fresh produce, Morris said. “Many of them are clueless as to where the fruits and vegetables come from,” he said.
Los Angeles schools chief John Deasy said the district has seen the positive affects of gardens on campuses. The gardens “have the ability to truly change food culture for the children of Los Angeles,” he said.
Parent volunteer Ana Perez, who has three children at Sixth Avenue, said parents had been asking for years to get a garden to add some green to the barren playground.
Working in a garden, Perez said in Spanish, teaches students “responsibility, gives them something to call their own.”
As a group of first-graders prepared the soil, garden coordinator Tim Villard announced the types of root vegetables they could plant.
“We’ve got beets, turnips and carrots,” he told them. One boy blurted out, “I love carrots!”
Villard asked them to file into three lines, one for each type of seed.
“Does anybody want to plant beets with me?” he asked.
Three girls eventually took pity on the beets, smiling as they dropped seeds and smoothed the soil.