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

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!

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

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

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