These days, we hear more and more about our food system in crisis: contamination, obesity, poor distribution, and environmental devastation. To combat some of these issues, the school garden is a growing trend that aims to teach our kids a more direct connection to their food and eating habits. It’s actually not a new concept. During World War I and II, motivated by scarcity and national security issues, schools became major suppliers of fresh produce. Our government began the U.S. School Garden Army, promoting fruit and vegetable production, consumption, and health. But now the format has entered modern times, up against modern ailments and a larger population.
It is one thing to plant a few sunflowers with Kindergarteners and another to install, maintain, and implement nutrition, cooking, and ecological curriculum that ensure a lasting impact on the students. It’s not as easy as just planting some tomatoes and hoping our kids will get the message. We’ve all encountered a neglected schoolyard, tangled weeds and scorched earth, with evidence of good intention but stunted momentum. To really hit home on the important seed to fork lessons a school garden can deliver, it takes tons of work, planning, thought, and consistency…a home garden times one hundred or more. The hurdles involved are also great, from our national policies, to funding, to actual space available within our country’s concrete landscapes.
But today we also have more resources promoting the school garden concept. Lesson plans, non-profit organizations, grants, teacher workshops, and consulting opportunities get us closer to creating these Growing Classrooms more efficiently and with a broader reach. We also finally have some definitive research to back up our claims that these school gardens will work towards creating a healthier food system for generations to come.
In 2004, The School Lunch Initiative was launched in Berkeley, California. The Initiative, which aims to integrate cooking and gardening into regular school programming and food, is a collaboration between the public school district’s 11 elementary and 3 middle schools, Alice Water’s Chez Panisse Foundation and the Center for Ecoliteracy. However, after being met with criticism and arguments about the project’s validity, the Chez Panisse Foundation decided to fund The School Lunch Initiative Evaluation Project that was released in June of this year.
This academic study conducted by UC Berkeley researchers is one of the first to thoroughly examine a fully functioning school garden program within a public school system. This lack of scientific evidence is due, in part, to the difficulty involved in quantifying the multi-layered variables, time, and sophistication within the diverse samples of school food and garden projects. Some focus only on the environment, some on nutrition, some on public school menu changes, but until now there has been little evidence that looks at models of successful integration within all the tenants of this issue.
Over the course of three years (fall of 2005 to spring of 2009) 238 students were followed as they moved from the fourth and fifth grades into middle school to determine the effects of The Initiative as it was being implemented. The method was to track students’ development over time within a critical age group, broken up between highly developed food programs and less developed ones within the Berkeley school system (all under the School Food Initiative, which has required healthier food choices, a school garden, on-site cooking education, and professional development for teachers). It is important to note that the schools receiving more exposure to the Initiative programming generally have lower income students, while the schools with less assistance have higher income families enrolled.
The reason this age group was chosen is because studies have indicated that as we move into middle school and our teens, food choices become less healthy, which may lead to poor eating habits as we enter adulthood. U.S. adolescents eat about 3.5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day, according to the USDA, as opposed to the recommended seven to eight. This statistic points to the importance of sustained garden and cooking education in middle schools to create a lasting impact. The researcher’s evidence documented an increase in fruit and vegetable servings by 1.5 for fifth graders at the highly developed schools. The less developed schools showed a decrease by 0.4 servings.
There was also a concerted effort to mirror the ethnic and economic diversity of Berkeley public schools within the study, as stated by the authors, “The heterogeneity of the student population is due to Berkeley’s long-standing efforts at integrating its schools. In 1968, the Berkeley Uniﬁed School District became the ﬁrst major school district in the nation to voluntarily integrate its schools. Today, a school assignment plan based upon race, ethnicity, parent education and parent income level aims to bring a diverse mix of students into each Berkeley school.”
One main finding was that parents reported much healthier eating habits in their kids. More than half of the families involved in the study reported eating dinner together every day, and 35 percent of parents with kids in the highly developed School Lunch Initiative schools saw a noticeable improvement in their children’s food choices as opposed to 16 percent in the less developed Initiative schools.
There was also strong evidence that students had increased knowledge of nutrition when exposed to higher levels of Initiative programming (cooking and gardening), specifically in seventh graders in year three with a five percent increase in nutrition scores over the previous year. Not only did the kids know more about fresh produce, they actually started to prefer it, notably in the first year of exposure. The preference was sustained, specifically for leafy greens, following them all the way into middle school.
By year three, the older kids at the highly developed Initiative middle schools displayed a positive attitude about their lunch program, food choices, in-season produce, and ideas that our eating habits can help or hurt the environment. In short, they got it…
The study was also to determine how to enhance, change, and replicate this kind of programming on a wider scale. Obvious recommendations included continuing these kinds of integrated school garden programs, ensuring regular attendance by hiring paid staff, and maintaining the programs into middle schools to reach kids as they move into their teens. The report also suggested adding components that include parents and community members, finding ways to improve the quality of foods brought from home (not just for lunch but for larger events, fundraisers, etc.), and increasing physical activity during the garden and cooking lessons to promote exercise.
On a policy and research level, there needs to be more understanding of how the parents and children view the school meals and what they are actually consuming in order to create strategies that ensure more participation. Also, future assessment of cost and replicability of the School Garden Initiative needs to occur to determine feasibly spreading the model on a wider scale. And finally, the study suggested broadening the age group to look at much younger kids all the way into high school to really analyze the impact of these garden programs for the future.
Photo: Life Lab Science Program in Santa Cruz, CA