Being a farmer, I often get people talking about how it’s great that I grow vegetables, but their kids just won’t eat them. I find this astonishing, as I grew up with my grandparents, who were both farmers, and we had vegetables with every meal. Talking with my partner Emily Kennedy, who has a masters degree in nutrition, I learned more about how children used to be more involved in the growing of vegetables and how that trend may be coming back. Here’s what she has to say:

As a nutrition professional, I am constantly thinking about the current health problems we face in this country, particularly as they affect children. Childhood obesity affects 12.5 million children between the ages of 2 and 19 years in the United States today, and the prevalence of obesity has almost tripled since 1980. Studies have found a sharp decrease in physical activity, and a sharp increase in time spent at the computer and television among children. Poor fruit and vegetable intake is also a health concern for American children. A recent study reported that no age group met the recommendations for daily vegetable intake, and no age group except for children 2 to 3 years old met the recommendations for daily fruit intake. This may be related to the findings that 50% of parents or caregivers report their child is a picky eater.

I don’t know about you, but I find these facts staggering. While numerous solutions to the problem of childhood obesity have been suggested and tried, each with varying amounts of success, one potential solution that I believe has merit is school gardening. School gardening is not a new concept. In fact, school gardens were quite common, even considered patriotic, starting in the 1890’s and continuing through World War II. The USDA reported over 75,000 school gardens in the year 1906, and the US School Garden Army, created during WWI, boasted the slogan “A garden for every child, and every child in a garden”. Among numerous lessons, these gardens taught children how food grows and gets to their plate. After the Second World War ended and the processed food industry took over, school gardens were deemed no longer necessary and died out one by one.

Public school 88 garden

Students participating in a school garden in 1918

With the advent of the childhood health crisis, however, more and more people are bringing up the subject of school gardens again. Proponents of school gardens are sprouting up across the country and include many high profile individuals, including First Lady Michelle Obama, who founded the Let’s Move! campaign to combat childhood obesity, and Chef Alice Waters, founder of the Edible Schoolyard program in Berkeley, California. These school garden advocates argue that school gardens increase fruit and vegetable consumption and teach kids valuable lessons about good nutrition, where food comes from, how it’s grown, and how to prepare it.

But do school gardens really have this effect on children? Or do they simply take away from valuable classroom time as opponents argue? While research on school gardens is limited, the research that has been done is promising. One study found that after participating in a 12-week gardening program, 90% of children reported that they enjoyed working in the garden and learning about, tasting, and preparing the fruits and vegetables that they grew. They also found that the children preferred fruits and vegetables more after the garden program and were asking for fruits and vegetables more at home. Another study found that an after-school gardening program increased both the children’s vegetable consumption and physical activity level. The principal of the school even noted that twice as many kids were eating from the school’s salad bar after the gardening program! It’s hard to argue that these results aren’t promising.

Tualatin Elementary School's garden

In addition to the results measured in those studies, there are many other potential benefits of school gardens that weren’t measured. School gardens provide children with a means to interact with their community, cooperate with fellow students and adults, have contact with nature and improve their environmental attitude, and feel pride in themselves and their work. And the scope of school garden education isn’t limited to food and nature. School gardens lessons can be incorporated into science, math, art, English, and just about any other class you can think of.

Many organizations support school gardens and offer tools and tips for starting a school garden and lesson plans to incorporate gardens into the classroom, among many other resources for school gardeners. For more information about these resources, check out the links below.

Interested in learning more about school gardens? Have a question for me about farming, or for Emily about nutrition? Leave a question or comment below!
Photos courtesy of Tualatin Elementary School and Flickr