Building healthier communities for the future starts with cultivating interest in fresh foods at a young age, school-garden advocates said during a Sprouts Farmers Market virtual event.
The presentation and discussion, "Growing School Gardens: Seeding a Healthy Future for Our Youth," was hosted by the Sprouts Healthy Communities Foundation and the School Garden Support Organization (SGSO) Network in honor of National Garden Month. Since 2015, Phoenix-based Sprouts' Healthy Communities Foundation has supported garden-based learning for 650,000 elementary school children, awarded $12 million to not-for-profit partners in 23 states and provided more than 10 million pounds of fresh produce to food-insecure families, the company stated in a news release.
With more students returning to in-person learning this spring after COVID-19 shut school doors last March, school gardens can play a more powerful role than ever in helping students readjust to classroom settings and nurture healthy eating habits, event panelists said.
"Gardens can be a place of normalcy for kids," said John Fisher, director of programs and partnerships for Life Lab, a Sprouts-funded national garden-education organization. "We're moving toward less screen time and more green time."
Time outdoors, with their peers, engaged in a hands-on, cooperative learning activity like gardening can be something of a respite for students after a severely disrupted year, said Moses Thompson, associate director of the community and school garden program through the University of Arizona and the Tucson Unified School District. "As students return to in-person learning, we're seeing that students are coming to school with trauma" resulting from isolation, economic hardships at home and enduring a public-health crisis, he said. "As a school counselor," he said, school gardens have been "probably the most therapeutic tool in my tool bag."
In a National Institutes of Health-funded study from 2015 to 2020, Texas elementary-school students participating in a school-garden program through the TX Sprouts initiative had an increase in vegetable consumption, a reduction in sugar-sweetened beverage consumption, a greater preference for vegetables, improved glucose tolerance and a 20% improvement in their ability to stay on task, reported Jaimie Davis, who led the project.
One-third of children in the U.S. are overweight or obese, Davis said, with that share closer to 50% in lower-income communities. Providing hands-on education in growing and preparing fresh fruits and vegetables can yield meaningful improvements in health metrics for students and foster healthful eating habits and preferences, she said. "When you include gardening in your nutrition intervention, those are when you see the biggest and most profound effects on health," said Davis.
In addition to physical and mental health benefits, school gardens offer students the opportunity to engage in hands-on STEM learning in outdoor spaces, said Luisa Aviles, instructional coach for Sprouts-supported not-for-profit OutTeach. "Gardens allow students to apply their knowledge to real-world problems," Aviles said. School gardens offer powerful opportunities to build students' interest in STEM fields and help them envision careers in rewarding, in-demand fields, she indicated.
The tools and resources that school gardens provide "will start and sustain kids on a path of healthy living," the Sprouts Healthy Communities Foundation stated. "Knowing that kids who learn these lessons from a young age are more likely to grow up eating healthier food as adults, we reach children at every stage of development, providing hands-on learning and tasting of fresh fruits and vegetables as they grow."