KANSAS CITY — Hogan Preparatory Academy's urban farmers are gathered at school, talking about why their nutritional garden is so important.
Just then, Exhibit A unwittingly passes by. It's a fellow student.
In her hands: a bag of Cheetos Flamin' Hot Puffs.
They know the siren song of junk food and how hard it can be to even find healthful food in their neighborhoods and in their homes. Who would have thought they could grow it themselves?
Dozens of schools around the area are creating nutritional gardens like Hogan's, and they're long overdue, students said.
Some schools send produce home with kids. Many are building in science, health and math lessons. Many are turning food over to chefs in their lunch kitchens.
Hogan students tell of one reason the movement is taking hold.
"This is something we've done," said Chakena Robinson, 17. "We came together. We made it schoolwide."
The Kansas City Community Gardens school program reports it has more than 80 schools now, up from barely 10 five years ago.
The National Gardening Association estimates one in five schools nationwide now has gardens, and the number applying for the association's grants has more than quadrupled over the same time.
The message is urgent, said the Hogan teens.
Consider a school survey, 17-year-old April Scott said. Most of the students reported eating fast food four out of five school days a week, with many of them going twice a day.
"It's not just McDonald's," she said, "but Burger King, Wendy's ... "
Or consider Exhibit A, the girl with the Cheetos.
"All right, let's see," said Shannon North, the adult sponsor of the group.
The teenager knew the drill. She turned the bag in her hand to show the nutritional chart.
"How many grams of fat per serving?" North asked.
"Ten grams," more than one student answered. Some know without looking.
"How many servings in the bag?"
They are creating converts to health — like 18-year-old Timashay Hood, who said: "I wanted to change how I eat. I wanted to show people it's not bad to eat healthy."
Hogan does it with tantalizers like the salsa North concocted. The students know the ingredients:
"Tomatoes, cilantro, onions, green peppers, Anaheim hots, banana peppers ... "
They know because they picked them all from their garden.
Admittedly, they agree, they mostly wouldn't touch any of these things had someone simply slapped them on a lunch tray. Nor would they go for most of the other things growing in the garden — including broccoli, Brussels sprouts, beets, raspberries, arugula, cucumbers, radishes, kale and collard greens.
"But if it's presented in an interesting way," said 18-year-old Myesha Bell, "they say, 'Ooh, good,' and they'll eat it. It starts off from a little group, and then it's a chain reaction."
Andrea Mathew knows the reaction Bell's talking about.
She's the school garden program coordinator at Kansas City Community Gardens. And she can hardly keep up with her rounds, getting from school to school to help them plan and manage their plots.
She paused at midweek to try to describe the growing scope of the program. She'd just gotten back from Truman and Santa Fe elementary schools in the Hickman Mills School District and was preparing to head to schools in Sugar Creek and Independence.
Preschools are getting into the game. The Local Investment Commission is making gardening part of many of its after-school programs.
Mathew has seen children at Scuola Vita Nuova Charter School squealing as they dug out the sweet potatoes they'd planted last spring, ready to share sweet potato pie.
"Kids look at gardening differently," Mathew said. "They want to hang out with every roly-poly."
Dorothy Curry can almost say she saw this coming.
Ten years ago, the co-founder of Gordon Parks Elementary School was helping the charter school move into its new home and caught herself staring at a set of raised flower beds — choked with weeds — in the old school building's front yard.
"I saw those beds and I knew," she said. "If the principal and teachers were willing, I knew children would be fascinated."
The experiential lessons in a garden "get into the soul, heart and mind of the child," she said. "All education could be taught from the garden."
More corporations and foundations are catching on, boosting efforts to get schoolchildren gardening, said Mike Metallo with the National Gardening Association. He estimates the association will be doling out $250,000 in grants this year compared with less than $50,000 just five years ago.
More than 6,000 schools are applying, compared with less than 1,000 before.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced it would hand out $1 million in grants to high-poverty schools to start community gardens.
Several factors have fed what Metallo called a "snowball effect," including alarms over the rise in childhood obesity and the revolution toward organic and nutritional foods.
And another reason, said 17-year-old Tyron Bridgewater at Hogan, students love the work.
"We built this from the start," he said.