CHICAGO — The 8-year-old girls peer through the leaves of basil, green bean and cucumber plants, searching for peppers that still need to be picked.
"The droopy one is peppers," third-grader Simran Shankardass calls to her best friend, Jessica DeKoven.
If all goes well, the organically grown fare will end up as food for students at the Louisa May Alcott School, where a large vegetable garden just outside the cafeteria is planted, tended and harvested by students.
The project is part of a larger movement sweeping the country: From New York to California, schools are using gardening to teach students about nature and — perhaps more important — about healthy food.
Some schools even use the student-grown food to supplement lunches. Other programs promote the use of crops grown by local farmers to get healthier food into schools.
But "kids actually eat more fruits and vegetables when they've grown them themselves," said Abby Jaramillo, director of the school-gardening program Urban Sprouts in San Francisco.
The National Gardening Association's online registry lists 1,500 school gardens, up from 1,100 a year ago, although spokeswoman Barbara Richardson said there are thousands more.
In California alone, 2,500 schools have gardens, according to a 2002 survey. Last year, 3,900 schools applied for state grants after the General Assembly made $10.8 million available for school gardens, said John Fisher of the California Department of Education school garden resource center.
New York City schoolchildren grew vegetables and herbs that were harvested in October and used in cafeterias.
And this fall, 50 Idaho schools applied for federal grants to plant gardens next year, said Heidi Martin, child nutrition coordinator for the Idaho Department of Education. Recipients must include students in the garden upkeep and their program must have a nutrition education component.
The University of Florida in Gainesville hosts a statewide school garden competition. Washington, D.C., celebrates School Garden Week.
School gardens aren't entirely new. The word "kindergarten" — children-garden — was coined in 1840 by a German educator. But in the United States, school gardens often were linked to 4-H programs and agricultural studies.
Urban school gardens started becoming more common about a decade ago as a way to introduce children to more local and organic produce. One early pioneer was chef Alice Waters, who began her Edible Schoolyard program in Berkeley, Calif.
But interest in gardens has grown even more since the 2004 reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, which requires school districts to adopt wellness programs, said Antonia Demas, director of the nonprofit Food Studies Institute in Trumansburg, N.Y.
Still, there are challenges to moving student-grown food to cafeteria trays.
"Conceptually it makes all the sense in the world," said Jean Saunders, school wellness director for the nonprofit Healthy Schools Campaign. "Operationally it's too difficult."
Schools must submit menus for federal approval weeks in advance, barring any last-minute additions from school gardens, Saunders said. She also said there are health department concerns about food sources, and schools don't have enough land and resources to feed all the students fresh vegetables.
But she said gardens still are valuable for classroom lessons, including teaching children where food comes from and how to eat healthy.
"What we see most common is taste testing," said Martin, from the Idaho education department. "Kids can have a taste ... of what they grew to make that connection between what is grown and what is eaten."
At Chicago's Alcott school, the focus is on organic produce. A program called the Organic School Project has filled a kid-size salad bar with fresh-cut spinach, cucumbers, green peppers and tomatoes.
A meal may include a slice of organic cheese pizza, a scoop of couscous, steamed zucchini and a banana; lunches are made from scratch every day.
"Yes, we're going to reduce (body mass index)," said Chicago chef Greg Christian, who founded the Organic School Project. "We're going to increase nutrition education; all that great stuff is going to happen. But the big one is, are they going to choose more responsible foods in their life from this point on?"
A July study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service found that while most school-age children eat generally nutritious food, students also eat fewer servings of vegetables, fruits and whole grains and more servings of sodium and saturated fat.
Healthier children learn better.
That's what makes school garden projects worthwhile, said Antonia Demas, of the Food Studies Institute.
"If we can link it to the kids performing better in school then I think the extra cost for the food is going to be justified," said Demas. "(But) that's something down the road because we don't have the infrastructure in place. We've got to get the vegetables in them."
Alcott principal David Domovic said he sees a difference in his students, who now eat fresher food than before.
"For the first time I see children excited about vegetables because they're growing them," Domovic said. "They're seeing them. They're eating them."
On the Net: Organic School Project: www.organicschoolproject.orgUrban Sprouts: urbansprouts.blogspot.com