It's a sweltering summer morning but a group of teens are happy to be toiling in their school garden, where dozens of varieties of fruits and vegetables are ripening.

"It's fun," said Daemon Seilhan, 17.

"It makes me happy," said Deja Johnson, 16.

It's also been a life-changing experience for many of the students at New Beginnings, a continuation school based at the Mendocino County Office of Education in Talmage.

"They're becoming more aware of what good food is," said Jonna Weidaw, a teacher at the eighth- through 12th-grade school.

That's so important, especially for children who have grown up on unhealthy foods, including some subsidies from the federal government, she said. The families of her Native American students typically are given lard, processed cheese and flour in their federal food packages, Weidaw said. It's no surprise that there's an epidemic of obesity and diabetes among that population, she said.

The subsidized food offerings are surprising because the government, at the same time, is funding advertising campaigns to encourage people to eat healthier, Weidaw noted.

As part of their nutrition education, her students have learned to read labels. They're appalled at what's in packaged food, like the "pink slime" that comprises protein substances in some fast food burgers.

"When the kids become aware of this, they say, &‘Wait a minute, I don't want to eat that,'" Weidaw said.

Thanks to their garden and nutrition programs, the students now are shunning unhealthy foods, she said. They used to show up for class in the mornings with sugary coffee drinks. Now they head into the garden first thing to pick fresh ingredients for tea.

On Friday, it was lemon leaves and fresh mint, Weidaw said. Other favorites include strawberry and kale smoothies and cucumber mint water.

"They're making these choices on their own," Weidaw said.

The experience has helped some of the students with more than nutrition.

Seilhan has become more outgoing, Weidaw said. "Getting him really enthusiastic about food has given him an avenue to communicate," she said.

He enjoys cooking and is planning to prepare a meal of enchiladas for his classmates next week. The focus on food also led to a part-time job. He recently was elevated from a volunteer cook to paid cook at the adjacent preschool.

"It's interesting working with little kids," Seilhan said.

Similar nutritional programs with gardens are in place in about 19 Mendocino County public schools, but many are now in danger.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture funding that most of the schools rely on to pay their garden coordinators is ending next month, said Terry D'Selkie, program director of the county's Schools Network for a Healthy California.

The state health department, the recipient of the federal funding, has decided the $840,000 schools once received should now be spent on advertisements urging people to practice better nutrition, D'Selkie said.

To save the garden programs, D'Selkie and others have been scrambling to find new funding sources.

"We need to campaign and do outreach," she said.

Their campaign includes setting up a fund through the Community Foundation of Mendocino County, www.communityfound.org.

(You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 462-6473 or glenda.anderson@pressdemocrat.com.)