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, zucchini, 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 grass-roots 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 percent of children and more than 30 percent 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 fruits and vegetables to their diets helps educate their parents, too, Cupchoy said. 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 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 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.
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.