MIAMI — Louisa Torres, who is 7 but soon will be 8, was discussing what NOT to eat. Look at the package label, she said. "If you see hydrogenated oil, don't eat it."

Instead, she said, "Almost every day now, I am eating vegetables and fruits."

She has learned the wisdom of this at her school, Riverside Elementary in downtown Miami, which is encased in concrete and asphalt but nonetheless has a vegetable garden tended by students.

There, two classes of second-graders have planted vegetables and herbs to learn about fresh, healthy foods. Without traditional vegetable beds, their garden is in large containers.

As childhood diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity and other health problems in adolescence have become increasingly troubling, more teachers are using gardening as a tool to teach nutrition and reconnect children with natural cycles, especially in low-income and inner city schools.

Louisa's classmate, Christine Monastirsky, 7, understands the lesson. Her advice: "Don't eat fast food."

Luz Paiva, already 8, has also taken it to heart. "I like lots of fruits, but not as much vegetables," she says.

Riverside is part of a garden project with the ungainly title of Plant a Thousand Gardens Collaborative Nutrition Initiative. The program is run through The Education Fund, a Miami-Dade nonprofit that supports innovations in public schools. In Broward County, Fla., Growing Healthy Kids, run by Holy Cross Hospital's outreach department, is in its third year of financing gardens at parochial schools.

"We're teaching children skills and strategies to carry them through their lives," said Jill Farrell, chairwoman of Barry University's curriculum instruction and one of two Barry professors working with the teachers at 10 Miami-Dade schools. Elementary school teachers spend one Saturday a month at Barry University fashioning their teaching methods and incorporating gardening into their lesson plans.

GERMINATING IDEAS

At a recent workshop for parents and students, teacher Mike Morales walked everyone through planting onion seeds in a container. He reminded kids that the word for what happens when a seed starts to grow is "germination."

When he talked about the potting soil, classroom teachers carried around pots of soil for the children to sniff. When Morales said river rocks were used to aid in drainage, the teachers quietly showed each child a handful of rocks.

Finally, Morales admonished the little gardeners: "You know how you take care of your Hannah Montana outfit? You gotta take care of your plant that way."

Teachers also had enough grant money to buy cooking equipment so they can cook the harvest in class. At Stirrup Elementary, for example, the teacher bought a crock pot and served tomatoes cooked with basil. Two schools have held cooking workshops with parents. During March, which was nutrition and fitness month, the little gardeners at Riverside made veggie-enriched smoothies for parents.

Sister Nilda and the children at St. Jerome's Catholic School in Fort Lauderdale replanted their six beds after cold struck earlier this year. Tomatoes, herbs and cabbages are faring well now.

Sister Vivian, the school's principal, says of the garden project, "It's practical learning. Anything where children learn with their hands is excellent. They'll never forget what they learn here. "

Parents, grandparents, and even the Lenten season Friday fish fry at the school, benefited too.

Barbara Clark, who teaches St. Jerome's pre-K children, ages 4 and 5, said, "My little ones, when the cucumbers grew, were so excited. They were OUR cucumbers. "

Starting the gardens from seed in egg cartons, transplanting the sprouts into pots and then into the garden has taught the youngsters patience, Sister Nilda said. "Especially our carrots. We planted in October and it took until April for them to (be harvested)."

Holy Cross' grant officially ended last October, but the parents have pitched in to buy supplies until the next grant begins.

Some reactions from second graders: Sharyn Duffield had never tasted cabbage until this year; Cayla Sanches at first didn't like green beans, "but I like them now; " Daniela Botero likes carrots best "because they're crunchy."

St. Jerome is one of eight parochial schools served by Holy Cross Hospital's Growing Healthy Kids program. Two additional school gardens have been pulled unofficially into the group with parent teachers.

ADDED TO LUNCH

"Occasionally, we'll get things from the school gardens into lunch," said Cathy Whitt, the program's coordinator. "The kids at St. Bartholomew picked beans and snapped them in class, and I took them to the cafeteria so they had them for lunch. "

Whitt has partnered with MicheLee Puppets of Orlando to bring its Extreme Health Challenge show to schools as another opportunity to teach healthy eating.

In schools in the Growing Healthy Kids program, teachers employ a Department of Agriculture curriculum to integrate gardens into the classroom, and Whitt is working to get a school lunch program into her schools. "We're really pushing the fruits and vegetables, " she said.

Vegetable gardening has gained in popularity during a sour economy and with the recognition of childhood obesity problems. Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden has helped establish vegetable gardens at 14 to 20 schools a year through its Fairchild Challenge environmental program, said Alison Walker, outreach coordinator in the education department.

At the Alexander Montessori School on Old Cutler Road, preschoolers have been growing gardens for two years, thanks to the initiative of Hunter Reno, a parent.

MANY LESSONS

Mirnely Borrero, one of the teachers, said the children "have a botany lesson to show part of plants and flowers and roots. In science, they learn about growing from seed to plant. At age 3, they start learning parts of a tree." This year, six raised beds served six classes of tots. Each bed was divided into 32 squares so that every child had charge of planting and growing veggies, from arugula to snow peas.

"The goal is to expand their palate and introduce fruits, roots, leaves and flowers," Reno said.

HOW CAN YOU INTEREST YOUR KIDS IN GARDENING?

— "Start with peppers or radishes or carrots, things that will grow quickly," said Cynthia Lasky, who teaches undergraduates at Barry University as well as teachers in the Plant a Thousand Gardens program. "Don't start with seeds, but with little plants, something that will grow quickly."

Not only do radishes grow super-fast, they pop whole from the ground, she says. "Children are fascinated with below-the-ground things, such as radishes and carrots."

— Let them get dirty.

"A plot that's two-by-four feet is fine for the little guys. Good soil is the secret. But even in containers, we've grown tomatoes and peppers. The more hands-on, the better."

— Miniature gardening gloves and pint-size garden tools are available — but don't be surprised if — as happened with one class — the kids don't want to get their gloves dirty.

— Finally, Lasky said, "They'll eat what they grow. They even eat spinach and kale if they have grown it."

© 2009, The Miami Herald. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.