Karen Switkowski, MPH, PhD
This all sounds great, but is it actually effective in improving nutrition and general health among school children? A review of 13 studies examining the impact of school garden programs on dietary behaviors of children in grades K-8 found evidence for increased intake of and preference for vegetables following implementation of the garden programs. The garden programs also resulted in increased willingness to taste fruits and/or vegetables and improved identification of the different fruits and vegetables. Finally, children felt more confident in their ability to cook and prepare fruits and vegetables after participating in a school garden program. Another study investigated the impact of a school garden intervention in low-income elementary schools in New York on physical activity. The investigators found that children attending schools receiving the garden intervention had a larger decrease in sedentary activity and a greater increase in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity during the follow-up period compared to children attending a control school. The kids in the intervention schools were also more active during lessons based outdoors in a garden vs. indoors in a classroom.
My own sample size of 1 has also revealed great success with this approach. Last summer, my son had little interest in eating cherry tomatoes that appeared on his plate from a store-bought package. However, we also grew our own tomato plants, and once the tomatoes appeared he ran excitedly to the back door every morning to check for tomatoes that had turned from green to red or yellow and begged to pick and eat them!
Given that schools have had limited success in actually getting kids to eat healthier foods, a major factor cited by critics of the improved school nutrition standards, it might be time for wider implementation of approaches that focus on getting kids more personally invested in food and nutrition. School gardens are one such approach that has already shown success in many different settings and has added benefits to children’s health.