Bringing a Garden to a School Near You
By Christin L. Seher, MS, RD, LD
Research shows school gardens can have lasting effects on children’s eating habits.
As the 2012 presidential election draws near, it’s no surprise to see candidates and their wives in the media touting their messages to the public. What is surprising is that lately First Lady Michelle Obama’s message hasn’t been about her husband’s reelection campaign; rather, her message has focused on gardening and its health benefits. Using the recent release of her first book, American Grown, Obama is reinforcing the role gardening can have in resolving the childhood obesity epidemic.
The First Lady isn’t alone in her belief that fresh fruits and vegetables, sustainably grown, can have a positive impact on children’s health. The last decade has seen a growing trend whereby gardens are making their way into local schools and communities, with a substantial body of research to back up their positive effects.
Meg Whitbeck, MS, RD, CDN, a nutrition educator in Ridgefield, Connecticut, says, “School gardens combine several successful learning modules, such as nutrition education, exposure to healthful foods, exercise, peer motivation, and teacher modeling, into one forum. This multifaceted learning system yields excellent results.” Research indicates children participating in school garden programs increase their intake of fresh fruits and vegetables,1,2 and just one extra serving of these nutritious foods per day can yield positive effects on health indicators associated with chronic disease.3
"As a practicing RD who’s deeply involved in community nutrition education and an avid gardener, I see firsthand how exposure to the garden environment ignites excitement, interest, and curiosity about fresh fruits and vegetables,” Whitbeck says. “I’ve seen a 3-year-old grab a carrot from the dirt, run to the hose to wash it off, then immediately devour it. I’ve witnessed an 8-year-old examine fresh kale, gently tear a single leaf off, and munch on it while weeding. I’ve helped a group of students prepare and enjoy a vegetable feast in the classroom. All of these [occurrences] are directly related to school garden exposure—it really works to increase the consumption of healthful foods!"
According to Whitbeck, RDs who are interested in starting a school garden in their community need to be armed with evidence-based research to help secure funding and convince stakeholders of their benefits. Fortunately, RDs have many resources from which to choose to help further their efforts. Below are a few websites that provide ideas and tips that will plant a seed or two and help get you started.
A nonprofit leader in the garden-based learning movement, Life Lab is dedicated to integrating gardening into the classroom and offers a plethora of resources: lesson plans, activities, educator workshops, day camps, and gardening tips. A YouTube channel with instructional videos are among the resources offered on the website. Life Lab also runs a youth empowerment program called Food, What?!, which helps teens learn about growing, eating, and distributing healthful, sustainable food.
California Department of Education
As one of the nation’s leaders in school gardening, the state of California offers fabulous evidence-based guidelines and resources that schools across the country can use as a gold standard. The California Department of Education and the University of California, Davis, recently teamed up to publish a comprehensive guide that educators, administrators, and other interested parties can use to help support the case for school gardens. A Child’s Garden of Standards, Linking School Gardens to California Education Standards presents ways in which specific activities generated by school gardens can link to the classroom (grades 2 through 6) and across multiple disciplines, such as science, history, language arts, and mathematics. While geared specifically to California, the ideas can be easily adapted to fit other states’ curriculum goals.
National Farm-to-School Network
This national organization, founded in 2007, aims to provide strong partnerships between local growers and area schools, including the integration of experiential learning opportunities between farmers and students to help promote good nutrition, agriculture, and sustainability. Some of the best features of the site are its free, downloadable resources of farm-to-school materials, often broken out by state. In addition, the network broadcasts “Lunch Bites,” 20-minute webinars on a variety of topics.
The Edible Schoolyard
With a unique history, this organization aims to provide an “edible education” as part of the school day, which includes curricular approaches using kitchens and gardens as learning labs. What’s unique about this site is their resource network, which not only provides great resources, stories, and ideas, but allows individuals to share their successes with others.
Check It Off!
Use the following checklists for some great tips for getting started:
- Let’s Move! School garden checklist
- Checklist for Starting a School Garden (Dorothy Mullen, author)
While there are some wonderful national organizations available to help interested stakeholders make the case for and successfully implement school gardens, don’t overlook local resources to help a garden thrive. The American Community Gardening Association helps connect local gardeners with projects, and Master Gardeners trained by the USDA Cooperative Extension Service also may be available to help. Furthermore, Whitbeck suggests RDs “Google ‘garden clubs’ and see what community gardeners have on their websites. Often retirees volunteer their time and knowledge to local schools that are starting garden programs.”
— Christin L. Seher, MS, RD, LD, is founder of Strategic Health Solutions, LLC, serving northeastern Ohio.
- Sandeno C, Wolf G, Drake T, Reicks M. Behavioral strategies to increase fruit and vegetable intake by fourth- through sixth-grade students. J Am Diet Assoc. 2000;100(7):828-830.
- Hermann JR, Parker SP, Brown BJ, Siewe YJ, Denney BA, Walker SJ. After-school gardening improves children’s reported vegetable intake and physical activity. J Nutr Educ Behav. 2006;38(3):201-202.
- Joshipura KJ, Hu FB, Manson JE, et al. The effect of fruit and vegetable intake on risk for coronary heart disease. Ann Intern Med. 2001:134(12):1106-1114.