Cultivating Nutrition Awareness

By Eve Pranis

"When one of my fifth graders delightedly exclaimed, 'I can't believe I ate a radish!,' I knew my efforts to use our school garden to expand kids' healthy food choices were a success," reports Tucson, AZ, teacher Michelle Tuchek. "The class conducted a wide range of garden-based nutrition activities, but the biggest catalyst for students' making healthy food choices was their enthusiasm about nurturing, harvesting, and eating their own garden plants."

With guidance from a nutrition curriculum, Michelle's students explored the food pyramid and learned about the dangers of eating too many foods high in fats and sugars, then looked to plant-based foods as alternatives. "We created healthy snacks - fat-free vegetable dips, fruits, homemade salsa, celery with peanut butter, and huge salads that had students returning for seconds and thirds," says Michelle.

During a unit on fats and sugars, Michelle challenged her students to look at a menu, then change it to lower the fat and sugar content, replacing bacon and egg breakfasts with healthy cereal and fruit, for instance. "They loved this challenge. They began to be vigilant about identifying fats and sugars on menu items and food labels," recalls Michelle. When her young sleuths sorted products according to their content of different sugar types, they were amazed to see that kidney beans were canned with sugar, and immediately wanted to grow their own, she reports. This prompted a discussion and comparison of the tastes, nutrients, and energy required to produce fresh, frozen, and canned vegetables.

"The students were eager to share some of their nutrition knowledge and garden vegetables with other classes and with the community," notes Michelle. That enthusiasm resulted in an open house for parents and local media, featuring a garden-harvest stir-fry and salsa feast. "Although we've yet to provide produce to the cafeteria," she adds, "I've overheard my young nutrition fanatics comment, 'Boy, the cafeteria food is really unhealthy!'"

From Garden to Cafeteria

"Last year, our sixth graders raised vegetables and flowers to market," reports, Santa Barbara, CA, teacher Roger Earles. "But this year, our cafeteria is emphasizing a healthy school lunch program, so the school gardeners decided to donate most of the garden harvest to our own cafeteria. We've learned from experience that students are much more willing to try new vegetables when they've helped nurture them."

Students first surveyed the school cafeteria staff to find out what types of garden produce they could use, then planted appropriate herb and vegetable gardens. Student-grown lettuce, carrots, radishes, and edible-podded peas now grace the school salad bar. "We've had good support from our cafeteria staff," says Roger. "They encourage students to try foods by serving them in interesting ways - by creating a potato bar with a variety of toppings, for instance."

The impact of serving fresh garden foods in the cafeteria became apparent after students kept dietary logs for several weeks, explains Roger. "When students compared their own logs with USDA daily food group requirements and with those of their classmates, they noticed that their school lunches were the only meals that consistently met nutrition requirements."

Gardening for Health: Native American Nutrition

Over the last 50 years, as native peoples assimilated into the mainstream culture of this country, their traditional low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet was "westernized" to include more fat and sugar. This has led to many serious problems, including obesity and diabetes. In fact, diabetes is now the number one health problem among Native Americans. Diabetes interferes with the way the body uses food. Increasing low-fat, complex carbohydrates, such as fresh vegetables, dry beans, and whole grains, is recommended to manage diabetes, because these foods help the body more effectively regulate blood sugar levels.

Several gardening programs for Native American populations emphasize nutrition and draw on local agricultural traditions to combat this nutritional decline Gary Paul Nabhan at Native Seeds/SEARCH in Tucson, AZ, has found that many traditional Native American foods significantly lower blood sugar levels compared with today's "fast" foods. This group has helped school garden programs in the Southwest reintroduce native ancestral foods like amaranth, blue corn, prickly pear cactus, and tepary beans, and encouraged school cafeterias to serve the garden-grown produce in native recipes.

Natural Health? Check Out the Vegetable Wealth

Eat your vegetables; they're good for you is a familiar parental refrain. But how good? Although all of our food ultimately derives from plants, here's what fruits and vegetables have to offer in addition to protein and carbohydrates:

Vitamins promote healthy eyes, skin, hair; help break down food for fuel; and help fight infections. Since vitamins are easily lost during handling, storage, and processing such as freezing or canning, it's best to eat fruits and vegetables fresh - ideally from your own garden or local sources.

Minerals contribute to strong bones and teeth, help the blood carry oxygen, regulate the heart, help muscles contract, and promote growth and healing.

Fiber is the part of plant foods that is not digested: bean husks, connecting tissues of greens, or apple skins, for example. It helps "clean out" digestive tracts and is believed to help prevent certain types of cancer.

Phytochemicals help reduce the risk of diseases such as cancer. Although not all of their functions are well understood, these compounds are present by the thousands in plant foods.

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