Through school gardens, students, teachers, and families become advocates for nutrition and leading healthier lives.
by Allison Bloom, Editor, Food, Nutrition & Science
At the end of the last academic year, my son came home from school with a sunflower seedling. Excited about the possibility of growing his very own sunflower, we quickly transplanted the seedling and found a nice spot for it in our backyard. Amazingly, over the next two short months of summer, the seedling sprouted into a seven foot sunflower plant with a gorgeous yellow and orange blossom bigger than our faces. Now that the flower’s bloom is starting to fade we plan to harvest the seeds and plant new flowers all along the edge of our house.
My son learned so much from this small gardening experience. He learned to care for a plant. He learned what things were needed to make it grow (sun, water, air). And now he will learn how to use the seeds from the plant to make more plants. So inspired were we all from this project that we recently planted tomatoes. We are talking about planting pumpkins too. Put this in the context of the fact that I am a city girl with no gardening experience, and you’ll understand the significance. Best of all, my kids have suddenly both started trying and eating vegetables – and these are kids that don’t eat vegetables! The connection between these healthier eating habits and the pride, joy and understanding gained from gardening at home is undeniable.
Now, imagine that kids everywhere could have their own garden in which to plant, experiment, learn about new foods, taste new foods and gain pride in their accomplishments – and imagine that city kids or kids without a backyard could even grow their garden at school. Thanks to grants from Kidgardening.org, this is happening.
Kidsgardening.org, a resource of the National Gardening Association, has made it theirmission to put A Garden in Every School ®. For over 30 years they have provided grants to schools, nonprofits, and youth-centered garden programs. To date, over 10,000 awards have been provided representing over 4 millions dollars and impacting over 2 million youth. Kidsgardening.org grants are open to programs just starting up and those that are established. Interested programs are asked to fill out an application and provide images and supporting materials for their efforts. While the process is competitive, they try to be fair to all applying programs by selecting a variety of garden programs, with different levels of need and in different environments. Often the programs that have the most support and ability to sustain garden programming are selected over those that may not have as strong of a leadership or support team.
Kids today have less direct access to the outdoors, both at home and in their communities, and this leads to inactivity and a disconnect with the natural world. With one in three children in America currently overweight and obese (in minority communities this number jumps to 40%), there has never been a better time for kids to get their hands dirty – with dirt. Working in a garden provides kids with physical exercise and teaches them a basic understanding of where our food comes from, which in turn gets them excited about trying nutritious foods and incorporating a healthy diet at home and throughout life.
“Planting a school garden helps children to see the process of growing food from start to finish. As children understand how to grow food, they become more interested in the fruits of their labor. They are more willing to try things that may not have appealed to them when seen in the grocery store, served in a cafeteria, or provided at home. We receive many reports that children often inspire home gardens, insisting on eating healthy fruits and vegetables grown in their own backyard,” says Julia Parker-Dickerson, M.Ed, Youth Education Program Director for Kidsgardening.org.
Since students spend a majority of their time in the school environment, it’s where habits are formed, friendships develop, and often where a value-system is learned. Parker-Dickerson says they want students to have the opportunity to access health fruits and vegetables in the school environment to allow for a whole-child approach to education. Students who eat healthier are more equipped to learn, lead healthier lives, and develop life-long habits that can translate to less doctor visits and more productive lives, she says.
KidsGardening.org has also published key curriculum in the area of garden education over the past 40 years, which consists of many lessons and activities that meet national standards and can be swapped out with curriculum already in place at schools. These lessons and activities can be included in after school and before school activities as well as lunchtime. However, says Parker-Dickerson, many educators see the benefit of taking learning outside the classroom and they facilitate those opportunities with standards-based lessons.
“School gardens provide hands-on approaches to learning. Students can apply lessons learned in STEM classes directly to garden activities. Additionally, students gain access to environmental issues – they begin to see the connection between a healthy eco-system, their food source, and their own personal health. This is often a big step in fostering healthier lifestyles – understanding the ways our environment works and how to address issues that are critical to the health of our ecosystem. Students learn that healthy fruits and vegetables are dependent on pollinators, clean water, and healthy soil – that this is the basis for growing food and for clean air, clean waterways, and ultimately healthier people!” says Parker-Dickerson.
Through school gardens, students, teachers, and families become advocates for nutrition and leading healthier lives. While edible school gardens are not the final solution to food deserts, they do inspire a generation of students to get more involved in the food system. Growing your own food, says Parker-Dickerson, inspires a new generation to become more interested in food and its importance in the community.
“When children realize how whole food makes you feel that is when the battle against childhood obesity is won – fast food tastes great – but whole foods like carrots, apples, and broccoli keep us healthy and well and can taste great too, especially when they come from your own garden. There is always a place for school gardens and we value the many companies who see the importance of bringing a Garden to Every School ®,” she adds. “We see our grants continuing well into the future.”