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Researchers link school garden participation with healthier eating habits

Kaiden Yu | Photographer
GW’s GRoW Garden on H Street, buried under a layer of snow.

Updated: Jan. 30, 2024, at 10:41 a.m.

Participation in school gardens is linked to healthier eating habits throughout child development, according to a study led by a Milken Institute School of Public Health doctoral candidate released earlier this month.

Christine St. Pierre authored a study in collaboration with FoodPrints that found students who participated in school garden programs noticed increased enthusiasm surrounding healthier food options at home and a desire for “fresh food options” at school. St. Pierre said the study’s finding that school gardens garner interest toward more nutritious dietary habits in children demonstrates a need for hands-on nutrition education embedded into the school day.

“This study is a little bit unique in that it is one of the first to be able to look at what is the impact of these programs over time, like you can study while they’re happening in schools and see what students say,” St. Pierre said.

The study featured focus groups made up of 39 elementary school students and 39 elementary school alumni, ranging from middle school to college, who previously participated in the school garden programs. St. Pierre said researchers used “semi-structured” question guides and follow-up questions based on the participant’s original answers. They then organized students’ answers into themes: immediate, beyond the classroom and sustained, St. Pierre said.

She said researchers separated questions into themes and asked student participants about their view of working in the garden and their overall food behaviors and eating habits. She said researchers asked the alumni participant group an icebreaker question about their overall experience, their current nutritional behaviors, their food environment and a concluding question.

The students expressed their enjoyment of fruits and vegetables in response to the study’s open-ended questions and would tell researchers their methods of incorporating healthy eating learned from school gardens at home by asking for their parents to buy healthy foods while grocery shopping, St. Pierre said. She said the school garden program alumni were able to identify foods that were both enjoyable to eat and healthy, indicating that they formed nutritious habits.

The D.C. Public Schools Act of 2010 requires D.C. public schools to serve “healthy and nutritious” meals to students and instructed the state superintendent to establish a school garden program. In a 2022 report, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education reported the addition of two dozen school gardens within the 2021-22 school year, bringing the total to 111 gardens in D.C., with 67 on DCPS campuses and 44 at public charter schools. At GW, a group of students run the GRoW garden, a sustainable urban farm on I Street between 23rd and 24th streets.

The study found that learning hands-on with the food through gardening fruits and vegetables made the nutritional information more “memorable” and that learning how to follow a recipe fostered a sense of confidence in choosing healthy food independently among participants. This also allowed students to discover their food preferences and make their own informed decisions about their diets at home.

The study states that school gardens introduce students to new fruits and vegetables like beets and kale, which drives students to request new food while grocery shopping with their parents. Participants expressed that being involved in the garden also had a positive impact on their parents because students began to incorporate what they were learning into meals at home.

“Something that has come up in research with parents is that they’re hesitant to spend money on foods that their kids might not eat, and they would rather make sure that what they’re buying are things that the kids are going to eat,” St. Pierre said.

St. Pierre said she is developing a questionnaire to survey a broader range of people because the initial focus groups were primarily made up of elementary, middle and high school students. She said she hopes to survey high school graduates in the future to observe long-term influences of gardens as they enter adulthood and make their own food decisions.

“To really start to see the lasting impacts and the ways that it continued to, having participated in elementary school, and continued to affect how they thought about food, their confidence in making food choices and being able to navigate their food context was kind of unique for this study,” St. Pierre said.

Experts in pediatric education and nutrition said educating students on nutrition will help them balance their diets and set them up to make healthier choices down the road.

Brittany Shapiro, a registered dietitian specializing in pediatric nutrition, said school gardens are necessary to supplement the nutrition education children receive from their parents, teachers and athletic coaches, which may be incomplete or inaccurate.

Shapiro said the biggest issue concerning children today is the lack of access to balanced meals that include all of the food groups, especially fruits and vegetables, due to the cost of fresh food and the lack of interest children may have in choosing healthy options. She said it is “critical” to teach children and their families how to create a balanced diet to set them up for long-term dietary success.

“I definitely think there should be a nutrition curriculum in schools created by registered dietitians to provide children with age-appropriate education,” Shapiro said in an email. “School gardens are a great way to complement these nutrition lessons and help expose kids to a variety of fruits and vegetables.”

Pamela McKinney, the senior director of development and outreach at Capital City Public Charter School in Northwest D.C., said that there is great benefit in having an immersive learning experience that spans the entire school year because students can participate in all stages of the gardening process.

She said Capital City Charter School offers the school garden program to prekindergarten through twelfth grade students and that having consistent exposure to nutrition and health programs throughout their education is one of the reasons why the students benefit so much from participating.

“They know what plants look like before the fruit appears on the vine, they learn how to care for the Earth, they learned how the seasons impact the life cycle of plants.”

The Hatchet updated this post to clarify that Capital City Public Charter School offers a garden program for prekindergarten students.

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