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.

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What Nutritionists Can Learn from the Garden

For all the nutrition-minded science geeks out there who want to understand the health benefits of community and school gardens: it isn’t just about the fruits and vegetables.

I started this blog just a few months ago as a way to track my experiences spending time in the land of community gardening. As a graduate student in nutrition research, I’m a big fan of learning about any programming designed to encourage better eating habits or better food environments – particularly when it involves increasing fruit and vegetable consumption.

As a way to reflect on what I have been talking about on KidsDigGardening, I copied and pasted all of my posts into a word cloud program. The words you see here in the largest font are those I use most frequently, which should give you an idea of what I have been emphasizing about the gardening environment with this blog:

KDG through the lens of Wordle.com…

So what have been the hot topics? The words garden, kids, school, and food have come up a lot, as has the word community. However, being nutrition-minded, it’s interesting to note some words that are not as prominent as they could have been: fruit, vegetable, produce, nutrition… Here and there while writing this blog, I have touched upon the importance of getting kids to eat more fruits and vegetables, such as when I shared this very entertaining video that models vegetable consumption, as well as the functionality of home versus community gardens in getting adults to eat more fruits and vegetables.

However, you may have realized – like I have – that the health benefits of gardening are greater than simply providing fresh fruits and vegetables. One of the words that has been most important and repetitive in this blog is community. In my time spent with the local organization Friends of Burlington Gardens, I have learned that garden programming is not only largely supported by volunteers… but that the volunteers also become those who benefit from the program.

Consider how the stakeholders affecting our larger food environment may clash: the food industry’s interest in what foods we purchase is largely driven by profit and sustaining business by selling more product, while parents’ interests are at least partially driven by what they deem healthy for their children. Put simply, parents’ and industry’s interests don’t always align. For instance, consider the impact of food marketing on your food choices. Even I have ranted before about how packaging and familiar spokes characters could influence what kids eat – for better or worse (‘Cap’n Carrots’ anyone?).

However, what I take away from my blog’s emphasis on community is that, when we work on a smaller scale within our own communities, the number of stakeholders decreases. Consequently, there will likely be less conflicting interests, and so these smaller food systems can be a win-win for everyone. In the case of the small-scale garden programs within a single town like Burlington, each volunteer hour or seed sown can be a direct benefit recycled back to that same community.

WP 5/8

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!

Did you say Local or Low-cal?

Bakery Treats at August First

I just ate a super-delicious and decadent cinnamon roll from one of Burlington’s local bakeries, August First. Guilty over-indulgence? Well, maybe, but at least I was supporting a local business. And – hey – it’s made from local ingredients, so it couldn’t have been so bad for me…

Cinnamon roll was here...

…Tell me I’m not the only person who has gone through this kind of thought process: you justify a poor food choice just because the food is made from local ingredients.

While many of us might associate eating locally with purchasing or growing our own fresh produce, there are plenty of other foods we can also eat locally. I have recently been visiting a few of my favorite places in downtown… Last night, I ordered a pepperoni pizza from Flatbread. This morning, I stopped into August First Bakery for a cinnamon roll. While I don’t know what was local about my foods, attractive signs like these make me suspect that at least some of the ingredients in my dinner and breakfast were local:

So, here I am, purchasing all sorts of good local goodness, but have I been eating healthy, balanced meals? Yikes no!

The point I’m trying to make is that labels can have this ‘halo effect’ on our perception of how healthy our meals are. Brian Wansink and his team at the Food and Brands Lab at Cornell have been performing all sorts of elegant experiments to prove this.

For instance, Wansink showed that two groups of people fed the same fast-food taco salad made dramatically different estimations about the number of Calories they were eating; when the salad was falsely labeled as if it were catered from a natural foods café, people thought the salad was way lower in Calories! (Here’s a fun read summarizing some of Wansink’s findings, and a more recent study on the effects of food labels on food choices.)

Surprise! Our decisions about how good a food tastes or how healthy it is are not always made as rationally as we’d guess. Instead, we rely on expectations based on things as trivial as a label. Ever thought a food was better for you only because it said it was ‘farm fresh’ or ‘locally produced?’

So what does this have to do with kids playing around in the garden? In recent years, many schools have been adopting school gardens, often in conjunction with the Farm to School program. One goal of Farm to School is to build meaningful connections to foods grown in the community – whether it’s by hanging out with a farmer, providing education about how food is grown, or offering a hands-on lesson in the garden. The hope is that these activities will result in better eating habits. While locally grown food is oftentimes fruits and veggies, could we mistakenly be telling kids that anything local is healthy?

While I was hoping to hear people at Flatbread and August First justify their food choices based on what was local, I didn’t, and it could be that this is a decision we’re making internally – even on a more subconscious level. But can you think of a time you might have fallen for the label trick: ever caught yourself over-valuing a food just because it was made locally?

WP 4/6

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.

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

Youth Gardeners Sprout Up Across the Nation

UrbanFoodAmerica, a blog which reports on programs across the country that promote building a community food system, recently posted about RootDown LA. This Los Angeles-based program serves the community through the development of herb and vegetable gardens which are maintained by the area youth. UrbanFoodAmerica describes how RootDown LA creates a new local economy around produce by having two missions: create a demand for local food, and then supply it. In order to stimulate demand, RootDown LA coordinates CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) programs as well as farm stands and community cooking classes. The supply side is handled by the local youth, who are directed on how to produce foods for the community. These youth install garden plots and plant fruit trees in the area, while developing job skills.

When I read about this organization, the story hit home for me… literally; Burlington offers a similar program! The Healthy City Youth Initiative, developed through a partnership of the Burlington School Food Project and Friends of Burlington Gardens, is a 6-week summer program for high schoolers to learn about horticulture and sharpen their gardening skills. In addition to growing food on an area farm, the students help to maintain school garden plots about the city. Past projects have included gleaning – harvesting produce that would otherwise rot – from area farms to collect about 30,000 pounds of produce each year!

I admit I am new to the Burlington garden scene, and I only know the basics about the Healthy City Youth Initiative. From what I have read so far, I wonder if Burlington could learn a thing or two from the crew at RootDown LA. How well are students getting connected with the entrepreneurial side of growing food? I spoke with an intern who worked with the program this past summer, and she emphasized the communication skills students develop by selling the program’s produce at farmer’s markets. These teens learn quickly about the foods they grow (and even begin to take favorite veggies home to their families!). The teens are new to many of the foods they grow, but perhaps this experience inspires them to learn more about farming. Could this be a breeding ground for our next generation of master gardeners and farmers?

WP 2/23