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Growing Healthier Students through School Gardens

Image from MorgueFileOften the options offered for school lunch are either less than appetizing or not very healthy.  The alternative to these selections is to provide meals plentiful in fruits, vegetables and other healthy and creative items.  Most parents, school board members and others would be quick to choose the second option to make ensure school-age children are full of energy and to avoid looming issues like obesity.   However, it’s not always quite that easy.  Frequently, when schools switch over to these nutritious offerings, students end up tossing more than they eat.  There’s also the increased expense of providing fresh, unprocessed food.   What can be done to solve this dilemma?  Many, including First Lady Michelle Obama who is currently writing a book about her White House Kitchen Garden, believe gardens could be the answer.

You may be wondering, other than just providing vegetables, what is the point of having a school garden.   Many sources say that the biggest benefit is the connection between the food and what is actually happening in the garden.  According to Sallie Marston, professor in the School of Geography and Development and co-manager of the University of Arizona’s school garden program,  “These children are physically involved in the garden in ways that teach them all kinds of stuff about soil, water, the hydrological cycle, pest control, intermixing plant varieties – you name it.”

This type of opportunity also allows teachers, parents and volunteers to open up student’s eyes to what they are eating and gives an opening to educate them on new items, as simple as fresh spinach or different varieties of tomatoes.   Karol Fink a dietitian with the Alaska Department of Health told the Anchorage Daily News, “Because of economics, of family practices or culture, some students have just not been exposed to healthy foods. Trying food from an early age is key.”   Many times, this exposure becomes the responsibility of the school and school gardens provide a perfect chance for the healthy foods to become more commonplace.

By teaching lessons in the garden about what certain foods are, as well as giving the opportunity to take a taste test, students may just discover that what they’ve refused to try at lunch may just not be so bad after all.  In an article in the Pueblo Chieftain, it says “According to the California School Garden Network, studies have shown that “garden-based” nutrition education can significantly increase children’s consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables along with their understanding of food and its relationship to their health.”

This should solve the entire lunch conundrum.  These gardens provide students not only with education and an opportunity to expand their culinary horizons, but also with a great, extremely fresh source to supply their cafeterias.  But it’s not that simple.

One of the biggest issues facing school gardens is that many schools are not currently allowed to use the food grown in school gardens in their own cafeteria.  To combat this in Hawaii, Rep. Jessica Wooley (D, Laie-Kahaluu), has introduced House Bill 198.  This bill would allow school grown vegetation to be used in cafeterias if the garden is first inspected and certified by the Department of Agriculture.  However, this solution still poses an issue considering the amount of time the inspection and certification take and currently, the bill has not been scheduled for a hearing.  Similarly, in Chicago guidelines prevent school consumption of food from their gardens because they don’t currently use “commercially prepared organic compost and fertilizers,” said Bob Bloomer, regional vice president of Chartwells-Thompson, in an article in the Chicago Tribune.

While school gardens may not always work in all ways or solve all of the issues posed today in school nutrition, it is still important to remember that ideas like this can put school-aged children on the right track to leading a healthier lifestyle.  Each step, whether it’s getting students to try a new healthy food at lunch or cultivating a garden that could feed the entire school, is one in the right direction.  One great thought on this comes from Dexter Kishida, school food coordinator in Hawaii.  Kishida told the Honolulu Star Advertiser about their gardens, saying, “This is not about raising farmers. It’s about raising eaters who understand what it takes to get that (food) to the table.”

For more information on starting your own school garden, check out KidsGardending.org or talk to your local school board.

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