In many U.S. schools, statistics show that you'll find children who are overweight and others wondering where their next meal will come from; many are not getting the right balance of nutrients in their diets or enough exercise. Research conducted at Texas A&M University supports the connection between kids' food gardens and improved nutrition. Could a school garden be part of the solution to the diet- and exercise-related challenges children face? Many forward-thinking educators and parents think so, and have worked to create youth garden programs that focus on nutrition and hunger issues.
As a way to encourage the growth of health-focused youth gardens, the National Gardening Association recognizes outstanding programs annually via the Healthy Sprouts Awards sponsored by Gardener's Supply Company. This award program supports schools and community organizations that use the garden to teach about nutrition and explore issues of hunger in the United States. This year, thanks to the generosity of Gardener's Supply Company, 40 schools received recognition for their youth garden efforts. Each of the top 5 programs received $500 cash and a $200 gift certificate to the Gardener's Supply Company catalog; the other 35 received $100 gift certificates.
The number of exemplary applications was impressive and the selection process was challenging. The 2005 award recipients represent a diversity of programs and audiences but they all share the following characteristics:
Below is a summary of the top five program applications.
Yeled V'Yalda Early Childhood Center, Inc., Brooklyn, New York
Habits are adopted at a young age and that knowledge motivates the Yeled V'Yalda Early Childhood Center, Inc. to introduce nutrition education to their Head Start participants. They are establishing an Outdoor Nutrition Lab at one of their sites to serve to expose students to healthy foods, and to provide a source of fresh vegetables and physical activity.
The impetus for this project was an obesity study that found nearly 21 percent of the children (aged 2 to 5) enrolled at this site were already considered obese. Site leaders recognized the need for special hands-on programming and hit on the idea of a garden. The children and parents participated in planning from the outset. Leaders and parents hope that by growing and eating nourishing foods, kids and their families will learn to make healthful choices that will result in improved wellbeing.
The program will also donate produce to Project Hospitality, a local food pantry, and discuss hunger issues with the children. Since 100 percent of the children come from low-income households, they will be able to relate these issues to their own lives.
McHenry County Latino Coalition, Garden Quarter Neighborhood Resource Center, McHenry, Illinois
At the Garden Quarter Neighborhood Resource Center, kids in after school programs came up with the idea to create a community garden as a neighborhood beautification project. Soon after the focus shifted to growing fruits and vegetables so the center can expand their weekly Extension Service nutrition education and cooking classes.
The project also gives participating youth an opportunity to serve and grow pride in their community. The garden is located in the center of a low-income apartment complex and the harvest will be available to all residents. To further emphasize food security, the Northern Illinois Food Bank will provide education sessions for the center.
Dynamic Youth Mentoring Program, St. Johnsbury, Vermont
Located in a trailer park in rural Vermont, the Dynamic Youth Mentoring's 4-H Growing Connection's Garden was created to provide fresh vegetables to the children who participate in school lunch programs and their families. Using curriculum from the Vermont Extension Service, the youth learn about nutrition and healthy lifestyles and practice these new skills by consuming fresh fruits and vegetables from the garden and other sources. Each child also takes home a vegetable container garden, giving them the opportunity to share their knowledge and fresh vegetables with their family. The students discuss and investigate local and national food security issues and donate a portion of the harvest to the local food shelf.
Asa Mercer Middle School, Seattle, Washington
During their middle school years, students are more independent with their food choices and are often surrounded by unhealthy options. The garden program at Asa Mercer Middle School was designed to guide students to make positive health choices and increase their involvement in community food projects. The 270 youth focus on nutrition and exercise habits in health class, and are required to maintain detailed food journals that they later analyze to determine nutrient value and caloric content. During their social studies classes they complete a unit on homelessness and hunger. The garden provides a hands-on component to these lessons, as students complete community service by donating produce from their garden, organizing school-wide food drives, and volunteering their time at a local food bank.
Wynbrooke Traditional Theme School, Stone Mountain, Georgia
More than 250 students participate in the "Seeds and Feeds Ecosystem" (SAFE) garden program at Wynbrooke Traditional Public Theme School. School Council representative Joyce Larkin comments that "food gardening is a way to see and touch, smell and taste nutrition." The school introduces a number of nutrition education lessons and activities including implementation of the Dole 5-a-Day program, but "we anticipate the biggest catalyst for students'making healthy food choices will be their enthusiasm about nurturing, harvesting, and eating their own garden plants. Nutritionally, a school garden project is a winner!"
In addition to utilizing their garden harvest in the school's nutrition education programs, Wynbrooke students donate produce to the Atlanta Community Food Bank's Plant-a-Row for the Hungry program. In the classroom, students complete the Food Bank's Hunger 101 curriculum to increase their awareness of hunger and food security issues. Through their donations, the students reinforce the curriculum with real-life experience and learn ways "to participate in the improvement of the lives of their fellow citizens and the betterment of the communities in which they live."
We congratulate these programs on their Healthy Sprouts Awards, and are grateful for their work on behalf of children's health.