Can school gardens teach kids to eat more vegetables?

With a lot of research looking at all things covid, sometimes it’s fun to read something completely different, such as this study that links school gardens and related cooking classes to children eating more vegetables.

From the press release:

Getting children to eat their vegetables can seem like an insurmountable task, but nutrition researchers at The University of Texas at Austin have found one way: school gardens and lessons on using what’s grown in them.

Researchers worked with 16 elementary schools across Central Texas to install vegetable gardens and teach classes to students and parents about nutrition and cooking. In a study recently published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, the team describes specifically targeting schools with a high percentage of students on the free and reduced-price lunch program to understand how nutrition programs affect low-income groups. Each school was studied for one academic year.

The study found that students who participated in the gardening, nutrition and cooking classes ate, on average, a half serving more vegetables per day than they did before the program.

“A lot of the families in these schools live with food insecurity. They live in food deserts and face a higher risk of childhood obesity and related health issues,” said Jaimie Davis, associate professor of nutritional sciences at UT Austin and the lead author of the paper. “Teaching kids where their food comes from, how to grow it, how to prepare it — that’s key to changing eating behaviors over the long term.”

In addition to tracking what the children ate, the study looked at weight, body mass index and blood pressure. During the nine months of the study, there were no statistically significant changes in those measures of health. The study involved more than 3,000 students in the third through fifth grades.

Although a half serving increase in vegetable consumption per day may seem like a small change, it’s extremely encouraging to Davis and her colleagues.

“Behavior changes can be difficult to achieve, especially long term,” Davis said. “Changes to health parameters like blood pressure may take longer to manifest. Getting children to eat more vegetables can potentially set them up for long-term success.”

Previous studies have shown that increased fruit and vegetable consumption can promote health and lower the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers. More fruits and vegetables may play a role in reduced obesity in adults, but the effects have not been well studied in children.

“We have been able to introduce children to a wide variety of vegetables that they’ve never had access to,” Davis said. “Parents I talk with ask, ‘How did you get my kid to eat kale?’ But when they grow the kale from seed and learn how to prepare it in olive oil and bake it into kale chips, they love it.”

Abstract of the study:

Although school garden programs have been shown to improve dietary behaviors, there has not been a cluster-randomized controlled trial (RCT) conducted to examine the effects of school garden programs on obesity or other health outcomes. The goal of this study was to evaluate the effects of a one-year school-based gardening, nutrition, and cooking intervention (called Texas Sprouts) on dietary intake, obesity outcomes, and blood pressure in elementary school children.

This study was a school-based cluster RCT with 16 elementary schools that were randomly assigned to either the Texas Sprouts intervention (n = 8 schools) or to control (delayed intervention, n = 8 schools). The intervention was one school year long (9 months) and consisted of: a) Garden Leadership Committee formation; b) a 0.25-acre outdoor teaching garden; c) 18 student gardening, nutrition, and cooking lessons taught by trained educators throughout the school-year; and d) nine monthly parent lessons. The delayed intervention was implemented the following academic year and received the same protocol as the intervention arm. Child outcomes measured were anthropometrics (i.e., BMI parameters, waist circumference, and body fat percentage via bioelectrical impedance), blood pressure, and dietary intake (i.e., vegetable, fruit, and sugar sweetened beverages) via survey. Data were analyzed with complete cases and with imputations at random. Generalized weighted linear mixed models were used to test the intervention effects and to account for clustering effect of sampling by school.

A total of 3135 children were enrolled in the study (intervention n = 1412, 45%). Average age was 9.2 years, 64% Hispanic, 47% male, and 69% eligible for free and reduced lunch. The intervention compared to control resulted in increased vegetable intake (+ 0.48 vs. + 0.04 frequency/day, p = 0.02). There were no effects of the intervention compared to control on fruit intake, sugar sweetened beverages, any of the obesity measures or blood pressure.

While this school-based gardening, nutrition, and cooking program did not reduce obesity markers or blood pressure, it did result in increased vegetable intake. It is possible that a longer and more sustained effect of increased vegetable intake is needed to lead to reductions in obesity markers and blood pressure.

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