We are what we eat
Edible school gardens have been popping up like summer squash over the past 20 years––and in recent years with First Lady Michelle Obama cheering them on. The idea goes back to 1995, when Alice Waters, the pioneer of the “slow food” movement and owner of Chez Panisse Restaurant, created the first “edible schoolyard” in a vacant lot near the Martin Luther King Middle School in Berkeley, California.
A nice idea? Of course. But with increased testing and heightened security, and many other demands on schools and teachers today, are gardens just a green frill, or are they a good use of a school’s time and money?
The anecdotal stories are compelling: benefits overwhelmingly outweigh the costs in the usual cherry-picked examples.
Leaders of the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, who have helped 30 Tucson schools––mostly public schools in low-income areas––grow gardens through its Farm-to-Child Program, understand that happy stories don’t carry much weight in the budgeting processes of underfunded schools and don’t go far with today’s results-oriented donors. The garden program leaders are therefore collecting deeper data to measure the real impact of the gardens.
In 2013, the Food Bank partnered with the University of Arizona’s Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health to begin the measurement process. They devised “kid-friendly” survey instruments, including a “Fun Food Bingo” game, to determine if students are eating the vegetables they grow and are learning about nutrition.
An intern working on a master’s degree in public health conducted the evaluation, so costs for the study were minimal.
“The results are undeniable: the gardens do change lives,” said Nick Henry, director of the Community Food Resource Center at the food bank. “Students with gardens in their schools for three years show more interest in eating vegetables than other students. Kids who once did not know the names of any vegetables now could name favorites – Broccoli, Carrots, Tomatoes, Cucumbers, Cauliflower and Celery––the vegetables they grew in their gardens.
“We were able to show that, in schools where we’d been supporting gardening for several years, students had more knowledge about healthy foods, their attitudes about vegetables changed and so did their behavior,” Henry said. “This kind of information makes the programs more appealing to funders, particularly those with a strong interest in evidence-based practices.”
Henry said the food bank used the evaluation findings to encourage the Arizona State Health Department to update their guidelines, making it easier to serve school-grown food in cafeterias.
The first schools to get certified, and to serve school garden-grown food in their cafeterias were in Pima County. The health department reports that schools from Ajo to Flagstaff are now lining up to get their school-grown fruits and vegetables certified for use in their cafeterias as part of mandated well-balanced school lunches. The food bank believes its data makes a strong case for the value of school gardens.
“We hope that interest in eating fruits and vegetables will continue, helping the students make healthier food choices as they grow older,” Henry said. “Garden food is first step to a better future, one that leads to good health and self-sufficiency.”
You hear stories – anecdotal stories – from around the country that such programs, by increasing student engagement and discipline, as well as by increasing student nutrition, have a good effect on academic performance. The program evaluations to date, however, largely seem to skip this aspect, usually because the number of students required for statistical significance are insufficient in the controlled samples. A good effort for such a study, however, if the finding is positive, could likely put the programs in very high gear.
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