Leza Carter sounds a bit like a math teacher when she shares her passion for Tucson Village Farm.

If 10 students visit, Carter said, on average only one will have picked a tomato off a vine before and half will insist they hate tomatoes.

But by the end of their tour, most of the tomato haters will find they actually like the seedy fruit.

"It's this sort of thing - and it happens all the time - that assures me that we are onto something at Tucson Village Farm," said Carter, the nonprofit's program director.

"Those kids might have spent the next 15 years believing that they don't like tomatoes and missed out on a lot of opportunities to get some healthy food into their bodies. But all that changed for them when they harvested a tomato off the vine and ate it."

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School groups visit Tucson Village Farm on Tuesdays and Thursdays. They learn, by moving through various stations at the working urban farm, about worms, dirt, planting seeds, harvesting vegetables and preparing food. They even can milk a fake cow called Gertie.

All of this learning and digging and growing takes place on a plot of land owned by the University of Arizona at 4210 N. Campbell Ave.

The farm itself is a program of the Pima County Cooperative Extension and the University of Arizona, and its aim is to "reconnect young people to a healthy food system, teach them how to grow and prepare fresh food, and empower them to make healthy life choices," its website says. Since it started in January 2010, more people have been using the farm as a resource. Tucsonans recovering from addiction help out regularly and people with developmental and physical disabilities share monthly in planting, picking and eating fresh food.

A 4-H group meets there regularly. And during the summer, children at the farm's camp learn to cook their own lunches. They roll sushi, make pesto and craft zucchini boats. They also harvest and mill wheat and use it to make pizza dough.

"They grow the food and we teach kids where it fits into a healthy diet and how to cook it," said Cheralyn Schmidt, program coordinator of Arizona Nutrition Network, which provides nutrition and culinary education for Tucson Village Farm.

Kids, she has found, will eat just about anything they grow and cook themselves.

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Carter grew up in an apartment above her parents' flower shop in Maine. What she finds hard to imagine now is that she was afraid of bugs.

"The garden was not a place I ventured with much frequency or enthusiasm," said Carter, 45. Her childhood fear influences her work today, as she encourages parents and teachers to let children make their own discoveries.

"Kids are amazing naturalists when encouraged to follow their own sense of wonder about the natural world, away from the influence of peers or adults with outdated belief systems about what constitutes gross, creepy or dangerous in the natural world - or with food for that matter," she said.

Carter found her passion for growing food in her 20s, at a community garden plot in Cambridge, Mass. Today, Tucson Village Farm lets her help children learn about how food grows and how to make good choices about what to eat.

"When I pull a carrot out of the ground I might as well be pulling a rabbit out of a hat for all the ooohhs and ahhhs it gets," she said. "Usually not one child can guess what is growing under that green carrot top; their surprise evokes such joy in me each time."

Equally exciting, she said, is when parents report back that their children are making and eating healthier food.

"Yes, without question, every ounce of exposure is making a difference in these kids' lives," she said.

Tucson teacher Julián Barceló was already teaching his students about gardening and nutrition when he took them to Tucson Village Farm in October.

Barceló, who teaches a K-1 class at Davis Bilingual Magnet School, is in his second year of a garden project that intrigues not only his students, but the parents as well. "We had a lot of grown-ups who had never smelled the rich smell of a tomato plant," he said.

Victor Braitberg was there with his son, Mani, who is in Barceló's class.

"He talks about the work he's done contributing to the garden, such as digging," he said. "I think it's a great experience for him to learn about where food comes from and the work that goes into producing food."

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Like many nonprofits, Tucson Village Farm is pieced together through grants, program fees and donations.

The project is co-directed by Elizabeth Sparks, a 4-H assistant youth-development agent who helps run several programs, including Tucson Village Farm.

"I tried being a classroom teacher and I felt like a caged bird," said Sparks, 38. "I like to get people outside and learning."

Sparks has always enjoyed having a garden, but defers to Carter as the "growing guru."

"I have learned so much about growing food, about the patience, persistence and hard work that it takes," she said of Tucson Village Farm.

Volunteers are crucial, she said. One dedicated helper is Natalie Shepp, who worked with Community Gardens of Tucson two years ago and helped start a thriving garden near her home in the Highland Vista Neighborhood.

"Once I began gardening with children, I realized that I wanted my new career to focus on just that," said Shepp, 36. She loves what is being accomplished to that end at Tucson Village Farm.

"They see, smell and taste these fresh foods. They dig their little fingers in soil that nourishes them," she said. "I don't think it's possible for a child to spend two hours on a field trip at TVF, and come away with nothing."

School field trips

Tucson Village Farm is scheduling field trips for K-8 classes for the remainder of the 2011-2012 school year. Visit www.tucsonvillagefarm.org for details and scheduling information or call 626-5161.

What's under way at Tucson Village Farm?

• A raised garden that will be accessible for people with disabilities.

• An edible orchard, including kumquats, figs, apples and plums.

• You Pick Tuesdays: The public is invited to come to the farm to pick and purchase vegetables 3 to 5 p.m. Tuesdays. Items vary from week to week and will be posted on Tucson Village Farm's Facebook page at www.facebook.com/TucsonVillageFarm Proceeds will go toward farm-camp scholarships for low-income children.

If you go

• What: Learn, Inspire, Move, Eat or "LIME!" is a workshop series to help teachers, children, teens and adults embrace a healthier lifestyle. Topics will include nutrition education, healthy food preparation, culinary skills, gardening and fitness. There will be a raffle drawing for a trip for two to Africa.

• Cost: $20 for ages 12 and older, $10 for ages 6-11. Lunch provided by Renee's Organic Oven.

• When: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Jan. 21

• Where: Tucson Village Farm, 4210 N. Campbell Ave.

• More information: Visit www.limeconference.org to register or call LIME coordinator Natalie Shepp at 349-3224.

Contact reporter Patty Machelor at 806-7754 or pmachelor@azstarnet.com