Randy Ryan of the American Heart Association works with kids to make their own salad – the first they’d ever eaten.

Lettuce, watermelon and a fresh batch of herbs are growing at the Los Angeles Boys & Girls Club, and Lakers star Pau Gasol – as well as the American Heart Association – get an assist for making it happen.

The fruits and vegetables are part of an American Heart Association Teaching Garden that was planted at the club during the Gasol Foundation’s first annual Healthy Competition, an eight-week challenge between children in Los Angeles (where Pau plays) and Memphis (where his brother Marc stars for the Memphis Grizzlies).

The youngsters were encouraged to become healthier through physical activity and healthy eating. Planting a garden and teaching the kids the benefits of eating the harvest offers two lessons in one, which is the crux of this innovative program.

“What we’re doing is simple, elegant and fun. Kids can relate – and all the statistics show what changing eating habits can do,” said American Heart Association volunteer Kelly Meyer, the founder of the Teaching Gardens program. “We love working with athletes like Pau because they are very much a part of our message of being physically active and eating healthy foods. It’s a natural fit.”

Although the competition is over, the garden continues to grow. So will the lessons learned by the 27 children ages 6 to 15 who were part of the event – none of whom had ever even eaten a salad, said Randy Ryan, the American Heart Association’s manager of Teaching Gardens in Los Angeles.

More than 200 Teaching Gardens have been funded across the country, mostly in elementary schools. The program offers a several-pronged tool in the fight against childhood obesity.

The kids get to be active outdoors to plant the seeds. The planting is paired with garden-themed lessons that teach nutrition, math, science and other subjects. As the school year goes on, they nurture growing plants and then, ultimately, harvest and taste their produce. Studies show that students are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables they’ve grown themselves. And they are likely to take the lessons home to their families.

At the Los Angeles Boys & Girls Club, the children enjoyed an entire week of American Heart Association activities, such as demonstrations on cooking healthy meals. Military veterans and others joined Ryan in the planting of the garden.

The Gasol Foundation is dedicated to helping fight the child obesity epidemic in hopes of producing healthier adults. The organization is targeting its work toward schoolchildren in Los Angeles and Memphis.

Photo courtesy of Erin Raftery Ryan.