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.

Are we leaving kids’ health up to the schools?

Teaching garden programs are popping up across the nation. Kidsgardening.org, a useful site for resources on getting kids in the garden at home or at school, notes among the many impacts of these programs that they can improve nutrition attitudes, which potentially lead to better dietary habits. While lots of us may be getting out in gardens more than ever, children’s garden lessons are increasingly occurring during school hours as part of a classroom curriculum.

Great! Here is one more way we can try to improve children’s eating habits and address the jaw-dropping rates of childhood overweight and obesity. I am excited to see programs like these – called teaching gardens or simply school gardens – as well as many other school-based interventions, which encourage better eating and activity habits for kids. But are we putting too much pressure on the schools to manage our kids’ health?

You might just view the school garden as another great way to get kids outside, but these gardens help tell a bigger story in which schools are becoming increasingly liable for the health of kids. The question becomes: who should be held responsible for kids’ health? I found an interesting article on this topic that presented arguments for both sides.

On one side of the debate, many will argue that because kids spend so many hours at school each week, of course their diet habits need to be addressed by the school. For instance, UC-San Diego pediatrician, Howard Taras, was quoted: “Whoever is providing food for our children should be responsible with what foods they provide. In fact, schools may bear a certain increased burden, because as a teaching institution, they need to be a role model.”

But, on the other end of the debate, others argue the school environment can only go so far in promoting kids’ health. Parents and the community are important resources that need to be held reliable. What’s more, the school can only promote health to the extent that the parents and community will allow and work with the school. The classic example is the parent who wants to bring cupcakes to school. If the school is regarded as the most responsible for children’s health, the parents look bad if their own food choices are not up to snuff with the school standards. Consequently, a parent might be upset about a school controlling their child’s diet. I for one have met parents who are extremely defensive about the idea of the school telling the parent what their child can and cannot eat on school premises. For instance: Who wants to be told they can only pack their child a lunch if the yogurt they pack contains no added sugars? Might there at least be some gray boundaries in terms of what we each consider healthy? What’s more, those who support this latter argument may feel as though they should be able to give their child a treat without being denigrated by the school.

So is it the parent, the school or someone else who needs to direct what kids eat? More on this  tomorrow…Stay tuned and share your thoughts!

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.

FN 2/27

Gardening Programs: Fueled by Volunteers

How does a nonprofit like Friends of Burlington Gardens become a success? Of course, there are grants and other benefactors to help the organization monetarily, but I believe the real glue of an organization like this is the volunteers.

I got a phone call from one of the coordinators from the FBG in the short days before a children’s workshop event, with a last-minute request to assist her with one of the activities. I agreed to come, and helped with a workshop where kids made incredible fruit and vegetable sculptures (and snacks).

From what I could gather, most of the adults in attendance were volunteers with little experience or familiarity with the children’s mini-conference. Each group of children that circulated through our workshop came with one or two volunteers. Most of the time, these volunteers looked exhausted – especially in contrast to the excited kids – and half of the volunteers left during the workshop, perhaps using the time to recuperate. These volunteers were generally younger women who, perhaps like me, were looking for a chance to do volunteer work while getting exposure to children’s activities and anything remotely connected to nutrition or local foods. I got the feeling that these volunteers had never helped out for this event before since many seemed unsure about the time allotted to each workshop, and because many of these volunteers seemed somewhat uncomfortable improvising activities for the antsy children who finished their food sculptures early.

This is an example of how FBG (and the associated organization who created the children’s mini-conference) rely heavily on volunteers to make their events a success. FBG certainly has a core of volunteers who regularly offer help at events such as these, but other volunteers may be recruited through networks with related local organizations. For instance, the local food cooperative allows its members to receive discounts by volunteering with FBG.

The organization is always in need of more volunteers. I helped out at the office today and felt guilty leaving because there were more tasks to complete, and, sure enough, before I left, I was coaxed into helping at another event this weekend.

The volunteer is essential to this organization’s survival. But is it only because they are a body completing a task? Absolutely not! If you can think of a similar nonprofit in your hometown, try to imagine for a moment how that organization would differ if run only by a full-time staff of the same five or six or more people. How would that organization differ from how it was run when maintained by only one or two staff members plus a steady flow of volunteers? What are the benefits of each of these scenarios? To what extent is the community’s connection to the organization lost without the volunteer? I would argue that the steady flow of volunteers who help FBG are the foundation to its mission to serve and interact with the community.

FN 2/20

Edible Vegetable Art

Carrot wheels, apple slices, kale leaves, chunks of hot pink watermelon radishes, deep purple beets…

These were just some of the art supplies available to children who attended a workshop on edible art last weekend. Given this beautiful array of produce, the children developed VERY creative sculptures such as sailboats with kale leaves, porcupines, and even an outhouse!

As much as I was surprised by the creativity of the kids, I was even more surprised by their knowledge of fruits and vegetables. How many kids can identify a watermelon radish and yellow beets? For that matter, how many adults can identify these veggies? I have to admit that I would have guessed the mysterious pink vegetable was some rare cross between a turnip and a beet, but many of the kids were quick to recognize the watermelon radish.

Now, to be fair, many of our participants were the children of garden enthusiasts and organic farmers. The workshop’s coordinator, who has led similar activities with other, predominantly urban kids, was also surprised by how many could identify these uncommon veggies.

Maybe this was not the most typical group of kids after all. During one of the workshop sessions, I had fun collaborating with a few of the kids to build a rainforest of broccoli, complete with a tropical bird made from beets and raisins. The children were hungry and snacked on apples, carrots, and celery, and one of the boys announced that he wanted to eat his rainforest broccoli for lunch, but that he would wait until the end of the day so he and his partner could first showcase their artwork for others to see.

Since when do kids need to refrain from eating their fruits and vegetables?

According to a 2006 study on fruit and vegetable intake, less than 20% of elementary school-aged children consume the recommended five or more servings of vegetables each day. Would these workshop attendees fit within the 20% of children who do make the cut? If these children are such avid eaters, what’s their secret? Is it that their parents regularly expose the kids to fruits and vegetables from the garden? Is it that these children are encouraged to try new foods like the watermelon radish? Or is it that these children participate in gardens themselves? The coordinators at Friends of Burlington Gardens share success stories of kids and teens who transform their eating habits through a garden program… but what is it about the gardening experience that could improve diet?

Do School Gardeners Eat Their Fruits and Vegetables?

School gardens are a wonderful asset for teaching our youth. They get kids outside. Kids learn about nature and science. And then those kids try the plants they grow, eating their fruits and vegetables.

Hold 0n – I have to agree that I have nodded my head along with everyone else when I hear about a school garden and its success with the youngsters. But how are we all so sure gardens actually change dietary habits?

In November, the blog Schools of Thought posted a story on a school garden located in Atlanta, Georgia. The report shares the program’s success integrating the garden into elementary school curricula. The post opens with a list of fruits and vegetables the students have been exposed to through the garden and how the garden has increased children’s willingness to try new foods. In the post, a teacher’s comment is included: “You’d be surprised… what foods students are willing to try if they grow it themselves.”

But is this always the case with school gardens? Does getting kids in the dirt actually result in their willingness to try new foods?

Last spring, I worked with an after school cooking club at a middle school in Charlottesville, Virginia. The cooking club made different dishes each week which frequently included herbs or produce from the school’s teaching garden. One week, I planned a salad recipe for the students to create, and our first task was to gather some greens from the teaching garden. Because the cooking club is coordinated by the same teachers and community members who assist with the teaching garden programs, there is a large emphasis on using the garden’s produce within recipes, and there are also several students who are members of both the cooking and the garden club. On the week that we made a chef’s salad, I urged the students to try baby mustard greens to see if they thought it would be a good addition to their salad. Not all of the kids were willing to try the bitter, spicy leaf, including some who were also m embers of the teaching garden. So how can we be sure the exposure actually results in better diets?

WP 2/23