MIDDLETOWN — It's not common to allow students to eat in class, but Cobb Mountain Elementary School's garden is not your average classroom.
Spread over about an acre of land surrounded by soaring pine trees, the volunteer-run school garden boasts an array of fruits and vegetables. Students are encouraged to sample all of them as they learn about what makes a fruit a fruit, or how cotton is grown and picked, or what part of the plant you are eating when you eat a potato.
"This doesn't look super delicious, but it might be totally awesome. Who knows?" garden aide Andrea Blair said Thursday afternoon as she stood among a class of sixth graders and cut up a misshapen watermelon pulled right from the vine.
Blair leads classes of kindergarten through sixth graders in the garden about 10 hours a week. Her position is paid for by the all-volunteer parent garden club that for 26 years has supported the garden — an effort that has been redoubled in recent years to include food preparation, stocking a weekly salad bar in the cafeteria and expanding the footprint of the garden.
Parent volunteers regularly harvest food from the garden, prepare it and hand out samples at lunch. Asparagus is blanched, drizzled with olive oil and a bit of salt and handed out like treats, said Cindy Leonard, chairwoman of the school's garden club.
On the far side of a tall, wire fence constructed to keep deer and critters out of the garden hangs a brown strip of paper with "Garden To Do List" scrawled at the top. It reads like a list of communal chores: feed veggies, turn compost, turn over potato beds and amend with compost, clean up plastic weed barrier in pathways, and others.
"Everyone is out here all of the time," said parent volunteer Gabriella Moore.
The kids are responding, according to teachers.
"There are a lot of kids that would never eat a tomato, but if they grow that tomato, they will eat that tomato," said kindergarten Tappy Nelson, a 21-year veteran at Cobb Mountain Elementary.
Teachers have increasingly come to use the garden to support the standard curriculum. Art classes and reading lessons are conducted on the picnic benches behind the fruit trees or near the newly installed earthen oven.
"For the fifth graders who are studying United States history, we will grow cotton so they can see cotton being grown and so they will know this is the crop that was one of the reasons slavery was introduced in the United States," Nelson said.
Gardening for gardening's sake is valuable, Moore said.
"I see a huge difference in my children when they get to be in the garden," she said. "They eat better having grown it."
Backers say that, for some students, the fresh fruits and vegetables in the school garden might be the only exposure they get to a healthier array of foods.
Lake County is ranked 52nd out of 58 California counties in overall health in a survey conducted by the University of Wisconsin and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Sonoma County ranked 12th.
The county also has a 14.7 percent unemployment rate compared with 8.6 percent in Sonoma County and 10.9 percent statewide.
In 2010-11, more than 43 percent of Cobb Mountain Elementary students qualified for free or reduced lunch.
Parents are working to make those lunches a little healthier and to include more locally grown produce. The garden group has already reached out to area farmers to work with volunteers about expanding students' access to Lake County crops.
On Saturday the garden group will open their gates to the public for the second annual Harvest Festival. The event was conceived as a way to show off the raised beds and bright painted signs that indicate where a variety of vegetables and fruits grow: spinach, tomatoes, flowering kale, watermelon, pomegranate, cantaloupe, as well as peach, cherry and apple trees. The parent group hopes to transform the event into a money-maker so the program can be expanded.
"I remember when they actually started having the garden grow seeds and now it's gotten so big, it's amazing," said Evanna Pirlo, a sixth grader at Cobb Mountain, as she munched on a slice of pale but sweet watermelon. "The tomatoes we grow are the best I've ever had."