Way to go, LA Sprouts!

It has been so inspiring to see so many gardening programs popping up in schools and summer programs across the country this spring. Last year, before I really had begun to dig into the gardening scene, I felt like I might have been on the fringe of something big as I started to volunteer for a middle school gardening program. Now, as I have the amazing opportunity to research teaching gardens as part of my Masters program in Nutrition, I am amazed to see how much research is being committed to understanding and evaluating these programs!

Just this past week, the program “LA Sprouts” was highlighted in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The study assessed some markers related to better eating habits, such as preferences for fruits and vegetables or changes in beliefs about cooking and ability to prepare fruit and vegetable foods at home. The study was conducted among fourth- and fifth-graders in a Latino community, who indeed reported an increased preference for vegetables as a result of the 12-week program. Researchers have argued that an increased preference for vegetables can suggest an increased likelihood that children will consume vegetables, but this can’t be taken as definitive proof that kids are definitely eating more of these foods. An interesting finding from a previous paper about LA sprouts, however, was that this same program resulted in a slower amount of weight gain in overweight children than those in a control group, so there is some  promise for these programs to either improve what kids eat or get them to be more active.

Schools and Kids’ Health: Take Two

Yesterday, I started to discuss the role of schools in children’s diets. While we see some wonderful school-based programming such as teaching gardens that promote children’s health, is it up to the schools to direct children’s eating habits? I think getting kids to garden is a great idea, and possibly a way to get kids to eat higher-quality diets. But as schools continue to offer programs such as this, and as schools continue to provide a large percentage of children’s daily diets, how responsible should they really be for their students’ health outcomes and dietary habits?

Independence High School's cafeteria during lunch.

Independence High School's cafeteria during lunch. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

More and more, I believe the responsibility for children’s health must fall in the hands of schools. In the right school district, a child now could potentially eat all meals at school… There’s the School Breakfast Program, the National School Lunch Program, snack programs like the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program and the Afterschool Snack Program… and now some schools offer dinner too! On top of that, there may be snack bars, school stores, and vending machines available at school. If a child has so many opportunities to make eating decisions during the school day, Continue reading

First Impressions of the School Garden

This past week, I got the chance to hang out with a crew of kindergarteners as they took their first chance at digging into a small school community garden plot abutting their classroom. The kids were super-excited to get outside and use garden trowels, and while the main lesson of the day surrounded the planting of seeds for sugar snap peas, the kids were most enthusiastic about the earthworms…

Earthworms!

Early in their orientation to the garden, the kids were asked to think of what ways they should behave in the garden Continue reading

Local Foods: Slowing Down and School Lunch

Hey, here’s a fun listen: Test Kitchen Radio shares a story about school lunch and the impact of local foods in what children eat! The best part: the program interviews one of the coordinators of the Farm to School program at the Dorset School here in Vermont. Check out the program here (start around minute 14:00).

What I like about this story is Continue reading

Coordinating the Communal Community Garden

(say that ten times fast!)

Community gardens are about community, right? More often than not, community gardens are divided into smaller plots, in which individuals or families can rent a personal space for the growing season. But some gardeners prefer a more collective effort, where one big plot of land is worked cooperatively by the community. These communal gardens are a great idea in theory, but do they work?

NPR recently aired a story on their radio show All Things Considered where they discussed this issue. They shared some instances where the communal-style garden was a success for the community, but also explained how these gardens oftentimes fail. The main reason for failure? Community members lacked the time or commitment to maintain the garden.

community gardens boston, mass.

Jenn from Friends of Burlington Gardens told me about a community garden site here in Burlington that had tried to coordinate a communal plot. The garden has since switched to individual plots. The biggest reason for quitting the communal garden approach might surprise you… the garden produced a bountiful amount of food that went un-harvested. While I have mentioned theft in gardens before, here is an example of just the opposite: no one wanted to be too greedy about taking food that others might need more, and so food rotted on the vine!

So, whether food doesn’t grow because there are not enough people committed to garden maintenance… or because people are shy about reaping the benefits of their hard work… the communal-style garden is not so popular. I prefer to have my own small garden plot because it feels less complicated. I still want to mingle with my neighbors and meet others in my community, but maybe I can do this well enough without the communal style plot.

How do you prefer to garden? Do you rent your own garden plot? Do you share a communal plot? Or do you have a private garden at home?

Master Gardeners to Master Your Community Garden

Looking for advice on the community garden scene? Need suggestions on what to grow? Not sure how to grow it? Wondering when to start those seeds in the greenhouse or the garden?

Community Garden

Community Garden (Photo credit: Plan for Opportunity)

These are all excellent questions for a garden guru … how about your local Master Gardeners?

Every state may have slightly different requirements for their Master Gardeners-in-training to complete, but there is usually a volunteer component which a Master Gardener would love to fulfill as part of your garden program.

The American Horticultural Society offers links to Master Gardener programs in each state in the US (as well as programs in Canada) which you can find here. The University of Vermont is the coordinator for my local chapter, and these gardening experts have played a role in many of the community and school community gardens in Vermont.

But don’t expect that you can switch to auto-pilot just because you get connected with a Master Gardener. Last week, I had the opportunity to review an evaluation of school and community gardens that received assistance through Friends of Burlington Gardens. According to the report, several of the garden programs enlisted the help of a Master Gardener, but some of the gardens were more pleased with this relationship than others.

Why? It may be the result of too little direction provided to the Master Gardener. Without a defined role, how can these experts know where they should dig in?

Without clarifying the role of a Master Gardener – or any type of volunteer – that person’s unique abilities may never be known and benefited from. This communication about the expectations of the volunteer is needed by both parties. We all have some amazing resources in our communities which we won’t effectively utilize if we don’t ever sit down to figure out what those resources are.

Grant Money Not Taken for Granted

Every growing season I re-learn the same lesson: a garden takes more effort than simply sowing a seed. It’s easy to get convinced otherwise because nature handles most of the work. Many plants (particularly weeds) thrive without the help of a green thumb in the presence of the basics: sunlight, soil and water. But it is silly to think a garden can succeed without more input and labor and resources. For one thing, it takes human energy to tug out those thriving weeds that threaten to steal prime real estate from my vegetable crop.

That said, it is no surprise that school and community gardens are always in search of resources to sustain their own garden programs – whether they receive grant money and cash donations, garden supplies, or volunteer labor. One of the goals of Friends of Burlington Gardens (FBG) is to coordinate funding for these gardens through mini-grants, which may be used to purchase supplies such as shovels and rakes and mulch, or to pay salaries to garden coordinators, among other needs.

But how can FBG coordinate these grants, in addition to coordinating other events, and funding their own programs? Grants are the sustenance of this organization. I had never noticed it before, but the FBG’s director pointed out the  whiteboard calendars hidden behind the entry of their small office. Short notes have been scribbled on the four-month calendar in various colors. She pointed out the days with notes written in red, which signified due dates for grant applications.

I counted four to six dates with the red handwriting within each of the months. Seriously? Four to six grant applications to complete per month during the busy season for garden planning?

Sure, I suspected FBG relied heavily on grants, but I couldn’t believe this two-person team had so many grant applications to keep track of! The director explained that FBG generally receives about 60% of the grants they apply to, so they use this estimate to plan their budget for the upcoming summer and fall. This is shaky for the organization, since the plans they create now bank on this estimated revenue. How will they manage if they receive less money?

While FBG also continues efforts for fundraising and approaches businesses for garden supply donations, the year-to-year success of the organization will continue to be funded by grant money based on the previous year’s success.

While it is surely stressful and time-intensive for FBG to complete these applications, I didn’t get the sense that the director was bothered by this process. In addition to the most obvious benefit of completing these applications – funding – this is an opportunity for the program to constantly evaluate itself. By discussing the program’s successes and failures in grant applications, I bet FBG has a more balanced view of their organization, and also more foresight into best strategies for the future garden seasons.

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The Organic-versus-Conventional Debate

Community gardening and organic practices can go hand-in-hand. In several of the garden spaces available in my city, restrictions have been placed on growing practices to avoid the use of pesticides, herbicides, and genetically-modified seeds. But how important is it that my community garden support organic gardening?

Being an organic gardener myself, I wanted to see what arguments have been made opposing organic growing. Interested in the angle of conventional and GM-supporting farmers, I looked to the corporation that epitomizes anti-organic: Monsanto.

The Miracle-Maker

In a short article on the Monsanto website titled, “Building a World Without Hunger,” the author, Monsanto Executive Communications Manager Rachel Thimangu, reports on a panel discussion during the Milken Institute Global Conference which considered the role of organic farming in the larger scheme of addressing world hunger. Thimangu quotes Dan Glickman, former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, weighing in on the debate of organic versus conventional:

” ‘[You’ve] got to have technologies that allow additional production…That means you’ve got to not be afraid of technology.

‘We’re going to have community gardens. We’re going to have a lot of food grown locally. But, overwhelmingly, that’s not going to solve the problem of hunger in this world. We’ve got to produce more food.’ “

Thimangu’s article suggests we should consider the limitations of organic gardening because they cannot solve our issues of world hunger, and so we need to emphasize more biotechnology.

The more subtle message: Organic gardening is over-rated.

Well, wait a second now – let’s consider the way in which Thimangu presents the issue of organic versus conventional. Heiss argues in her article on an advertising campaign for high-fructose corn syrup that the corporation can use its communication and advertising strategies to allow only a small group of stakeholders to partake in the discussion about our food.

In this case, the stakeholders are the experts on global food security. All of us small-scale, organic community gardeners are out of the loop. What do we know about global hunger? Thimangu’s article promoting conventional growing insinuates the other issues we care about (like pesticide impact on ecosystems) are not anywhere near as important.

In my hometown, not all community gardens are strictly organic. Whether or not you agree with Monsanto’s angle that conventional growing can solve food security, perhaps we can all agree on this: The debate is incomplete when we avoid discussing the other environmental and health issues related to gardening methods.

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Does Gardening Increase Fruit and Vegetable Intake?

Do gardeners eat more fruits and vegetables than their counterparts? The research says, “Yes!” but notes certain types of gardeners consume more than others.

Jackie Brinkman posted on the UCDenver Blog about a research study published in the August 2011 issue of the American Journal of Public Health. Brinkman summarizes the research findings:

“[This] research has shown that places such as community gardens matter in terms of neighborhood quality and people’s health…More than 50% of gardeners meet national guidelines for fruit and vegetable intake compared to 25% of non-gardeners.”

This research was very intriguing to me, and so I took a look at the original article to learn more. As a blogger attempting to summarize key points from this study, Brinkman’s post is a fairly accurate portrayal of the original research. However, Brinkman does not clarify what kinds of gardeners appear to benefit most from gardening. The researcher’s results showed the 56% of community gardeners met the national recommendations of five or more servings of fruits and vegetables per day, but – contrary to Brinkman’s post – less than 50% of home gardeners met this mark. Only 37% of home gardeners and 25% of nongardeners reported consuming the recommended five or more servings.

Scholars Fineburg and Rowe write in their commentary how those of us who relay information to the public can ensure we effectively communicate the story. Whether we are bloggers or university researchers, our role as conveyors of health information must be exercised with caution to ensure information is accurate and accessible to the audience. One of the guidelines Fineburg and Rowe suggest all messengers follow is to avoid simplifying the facts. In this case, blogger Brinkman has shared that gardeners consume more fruits and vegetables, but she fails to note what kind of gardeners are benefitting most: those who are growing in community plots.

Also consider the context of this study: because this study was conducted among urban adults, we cannot yet say what role the community garden may have for children, or how health habits may differ for those in rural communities.

So what should we take away from this study? While continued research will need to affirm these findings, this study shows that, while gardening in any form is associated with eating more fruits and veggies, our dietary habits might be more positively influenced through the connections we build within our communities. Find a neighbor and get digging!

WP 3/1

Garden Planning: The Case of the Stolen Tomato

It’s still prime-time for skiing and plow trucks in the Northeast, but community garden plans are in full swing. Friends of Burlington Gardens (FBG) has been preparing for one of their youth gardening programs, and, after last weekend’s seed swap, many leftover seeds are available for the program to choose from. I spent close to two hours rummaging through these seeds and reorganizing them, and only made it through about one-third of the seeds!

So what are the best things to plant in a youth teaching garden? Any time I have planted a garden, my choices have been dictated by availability and impulse: my gardens were filled with whatever excess starters I received from farmer friends or the contents of seed packets with the most attractive illustrations. This can work just fine until I end up with a field of overgrown mizuna greens or baseball bat zucchinis.

Luckily, FBG is directed by wiser planners than me, who are more thoughtful about seed and starter selection. The grocery list of seeds for their youth program range from potatoes and onions and radishes to ground cherries and beets and various salad greens.

Perhaps what’s more interesting, however, is what the youth garden will not plant. No watermelons. No pumpkins. No corn. Why? It’s largely due to theft. The youth garden is planted on a large, two-acre plot proximal to low-income neighborhoods, and past experiences have shown these foods are most frequently stolen from the garden. While FBG have stopped planting some crops, they have gotten clever about others: while bright-red, vine-ripened tomatoes are an attractive and easy-to-spot steal, green zebra tomatoes are much less likely to be taken since it is more difficult to determine peak harvest time of this deceptively green-when-ripe fruit.

This is just one example of the tactics that will be employed by the coordinators of the youth program to prevent food vandalism by hungry neighbors. Certainly, these actions could be questioned morally. Should we be preventing the hungry from harvesting nutritious food they may not be able to afford? Can’t we just feed everyone with this garden?

I respect the perspective of the clever coordinator who has resorted to planting green tomatoes: “I can’t solve hunger…we’re not big enough.” FBG offers an amazing service to the community by teaching youth gardening practices and providing food for underserved teens and their families. Much of the food is also sold by these entrepreneurial teens, who bring their product to farmer’s markets. Profits support the program and wages for the teens.

It might feel contradictory to some to prevent the hungry neighboring community from harvesting the garden. I welcome your comments on this. As I see it, the priority of this program is to teach the youth job and life skills through their involvement in all aspects of farming, up through harvesting. Following this experience, I hope to see these youth return to area gardens and farms to help feed – and, better yet, teach – their hungry neighbors.

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