Many variables contribute to childhood obesity, but some health advocates believe the epidemic starts with food disconnect. Though the number of U.S. farmers’ markets swelled from 1,755 to 7,175 between 1994 and 2011, most children still lack a deep, strong relationship to healthy food and where it comes from, says Bryce Brown, founder of the Growe Foundation, a Colorado nonprofit that implements experiential learning programs in schools. When nurtured, “that [food] relationship cultivates a connection such that kids want to eat the fruits and vegetables that they grow, and health benefits follow.”

There’s no doubt that getting their hands dirty prompts kids to eat more healthy foods. In one study, scientists found that grade-school children enrolled in a nutrition education and gardening program were more likely to choose and eat vegetables in the lunchroom than those who just attended nutrition class. Plus, an analysis of the School Lunch Initiative in Berkeley, California, revealed that participating students increased vegetable eating by nearly a serving per day, had positive attitudes about food and the environment, and ate family dinner more often—all of which correlate to healthy weight.

Although school gardens demonstrably improve kids’ eating habits, Brown believes it’s not enough just to slap a garden next to a school. The Growe Foundation’s unique approach combines classroom curricula with digging and harvesting. “We want to provide teachers an opportunity to teach children how to learn through food,” says Brown. “Integrating gardens into each school’s curriculum also is a way to gain the support of the principal and the parents.” For example, first graders plant lettuce seeds as part of a life science lesson, while fifth graders study water cycles and the greenhouse effect as part of their standard science studies.

Growe Foundation consciously and closely ties its measures to school standards, which allows gardens to take a central role in learning, critical thinking, and problem solving. “We look at how communities can invest in the future well-being of their most precious asset: their children,” says Brown. “That means teaching kids how to live both healthy and sustainable lives.”