To grow and know a vegetable is to love it, at least for some students at Mount Zion Elementary School.

About 60 children in the after-school program at the Johns Island school are involved in a garden that's giving them a taste for good food and the science behind it.

"It tastes sweet, like candy," says fourth-grader Eglaen Padilla after biting into a just-picked snow pea.

Tiera Gadsden, another fourth-grader, excitedly identifies a ladybug crawling on the plant's leaves. "It helps keep the plants healthy by keeping the bugs off, like spiders."

"And aphids," chimes in schoolmate Shai'asia Smiley.

The school's garden is one of eight in the Charleston Area Children's Garden Project, a community-based organization in its eighth year. The project, which is affiliated with Clemson University's Coastal Research and Education Center, establishes gardens in lower-economic areas. The idea is to create a fun and safe place that teaches children and builds their self-esteem, all revolving around food.

Guided by volunteers, children help prepare the sites and plant the vegetables and herbs. As the plants grow, they tend to watering, weeding and other chores. They watch and wait for the fruit of their labors.

The gardens fill the kids with wonder and excitement, says project director Darlena Goodwin.

"They're fascinated with it. They find insects and dig up worms and are not repelled by them. They understand the worms and what they do in the soil."

Goodwin says her goal is to see the gardens fully integrated into school curricula. They can be used as outdoor environmental classrooms that teach aspects of math, science, nutrition and health.

Mount Zion Principal Deborah Fordham thinks the garden is the "ultimate hands-on experience" for the students. "They see the process," she says.

The Children's Garden Project will benefit from an upcoming fundraiser in Charleston. Share Our Strength, a national nonprofit group that works to end childhood hunger, is sponsoring a "Taste of the Nation" on Sunday at Lowndes Grove Plantation. It's one of 60 such events throughout the United States and Canada.

Several of Charleston's top chefs and restaurants will come together for the 4 p.m. event, led by coordinating chef Ciaran Duffy of Tristan restaurant. Other restaurants include Cafe Lana, Carolina's, Charleston Grill, Cordavi, Cypress, Circa, Hank's, High Cotton, FIG, Louis's at Pawleys Island, McCradys, Muse and 39 Rue De Jean/Coast.