Litzi Reyes, 12, works in the garden at Bell Gardens Intermediate School.… (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)
Karen Segura dug her hands deep into the soil of an onion patch at Bell Gardens Intermediate School as cars zipped past the nearly empty schoolyard.
The 14-year-old was busy uprooting weeds in the school's edible garden, while around her five other students watered, tilled and pruned a lush assortment of fruits and vegetables. There were tomatoes, avocados, apples, pineapples, pumpkins, zucchinis, lavender, lettuce, Swiss chard and artichokes.
Every public school in Bell Gardens has just such an urban farm run by members of the Environmental Garden Club, an after-school program that started at the intermediate school and now includes a rotating roster of 8- to 18-year-olds.
Members learn about nutrition, physical education and farming techniques. The project is one of a number of grassroots efforts sprouting in schools across the nation, as communities that lack access to healthful foods try new ways of combating soaring rates of nutrition-related illnesses.
For many of the mostly poor, predominantly Latino residents in Bell Gardens, school-based urban farms are the only source of affordable, pesticide-free produce.
The city, covering about 2.5 square miles in southeast Los Angeles County, has three supermarkets and 141 liquor stores and fast-food outlets that serve 42,000 residents, according to a community-led assessment of the area.
Some residents say these limited food options are partly why their city has one of the highest rates of obesity and diabetes in the county, with nearly 30% of children and more than 30% of adults considered obese.
There is the "pressure to not be another diabetes statistic," said Eva Cupchoy, the co-director of the intermediate school's garden club.
Teaching children the benefits of adding more fruits and vegetables to their diets in turn helps educate their parents, Cupchoy said. "I'm so proud of that."
Every club member at the school has a relative with diabetes. One member's mother, grandmother and grandfather have the disease, she said.
"I don't like it because it's very hard on all of us, especially kids," said Karen Segura, who works in the school's garden with her 12-year-old brother, Rafael.
The siblings say their father and aunt have diabetes. A few years ago, their grandmother died from it.
Their father, Rafael, 46, said his Type 2 diabetes is the result of genetics and his former diet, which tended toward carne asada, burritos, pork, hamburgers and fast food. "I eat a lot healthier now," he said.
The elder Segura, who immigrated to the United States from Mexico 20 years ago, attributes his new eating habits, which include more fruits and vegetables, to his children's involvement in the school garden.
Before they joined, he said, he never bought organic food from the grocery store because it was too expensive.
His wife, Elizabeth, added that the flavor of produce from the area's few stores was more bland than that of the fruits and vegetables her children grow at school. Longtime Bell Gardens resident Maria Cruz Vazquez agreed. "Even the cilantro here tastes sweeter than the cilantro they sell at the grocery store," said Vazquez, 50, whose daughter was a garden club member more than a decade ago.
Club members say they don't use pesticides to grow their food, which also affects the taste.
Other club members have noticed an improvement in their parents' diets since they joined. "I changed my dad," said 16-year-old Yarely Macias, explaining that her father mostly ate "mollejas," or sweetbreads, before she became a club member in sixth grade.
Teachers say the gardens also have helped enhance their students' work ethic. "Their attitude is a lot more positive," said Ricardo Ramirez, a fifth-grade teacher at Bell Gardens Elementary, where an urban farm also thrives. Ramirez and Cupchoy said every club tries to recruit special-needs students and students with behavioral problems.
At the intermediate school, Litzi Reyes, 12, said that if she weren't coming to the garden every week, she would "just be laying down on the couch."
Cupchoy, who's worked as a teacher in the area for 35 years, created the garden club in the early 1990s with fellow teacher John Garza. "There was nothing here," Garza said, pointing to a stretch of the schoolyard where rose bushes are now planted atop red brick-lined plots. "This was just blacktop and dirt."
The club's initial aim was to help beautify the school. But students began sharing agricultural techniques they had learned from their grandparents, Cupchoy said, so they began growing food. The club received money from the school district and fundraisers. Other schools opened chapters after the Campaign for a Healthy Bell Gardens, a group of community organizers, secured financial grants that have since ended.
At the intermediate school, Cupchoy helps club members with their homework and teaches them meditation, Tai Chi and sometimes salsa dancing. She also hosts cooking demonstrations, where students learn how to substitute ingredients from the farms into traditional recipes.
"We want to teach our students that they can raise their own food and not have to ask for outside help," Ramirez said.
Formerly, garden club members from every public school gathered every few months to sell their excess produce at what was the city's only farmers market.
But a lack of money has brought that to a halt, Ramirez said. The last farmers market was in May. Ramirez and another teacher, Feliciano Rodriguez, are now supporting the elementary school's garden on their own.
"We want to continue it as long as we can," Ramirez said.