Learning Gardens Sprouting Up Across America

Giving new meaning to the 'happy meal'

Imagine that a portion of the cost of a children’s meal would go to support educational gardens for children.  Well, that is exactly what is happening in Denver and Boulder, Colorado.  It may be coming to a neighborhood near you soon!  The Kitchen Community was created earlier this year by Kimball Musk and Hugo Matheson, with a group of like-minded individuals who wanted to positively impact the childhood obesity epidemic.  It began as a family of restaurants with a mission to create community through food.  Their farm-to-table concept offers local, organic food at affordable prices and encourages family dining.  Beyond serving healthy foods to kids, if you include them in growing food, they’ll actually try eating the “fruits and veggies” of their labor!

The first Learning Garden

I had the opportunity to visit the Learning Garden at Schmitt Elementary School, with Dominic Thompson, Development Director for the Kitchen Community.  He showed me a picture of the lot we were standing on, prior to the renovation, filled with gray pea gravel, adjacent to the school.  The space was transformed from barren and boring, into an inviting, colorful place where kids want to come to school early to play in the playground!  The gates to the playground, community garden plots adjacent to the Learning Garden are always open.

At Schmitt, most of the kids are on free and reduced lunches.  For many, it may be their only hot meal of the day.  New guidelines for school lunches have been one way to improve exposure to healthier foods.  There are many cultures and languages that make up the families at Schmitt and gardening can bring them together.

Children, teachers, parents, community leaders and Governor John Hickenlooper, got their hands dirty building the garden together.  The modular garden beds can be placed atop any surface – blacktop, concrete, gravel or rooftops – just add water and sunshine!  Why the learning gardens?  The Learning Gardens teach children an understanding of food, healthy eating, lifestyle choices and environment through lesson plans and activities that tie into existing school curriculum, such as math, science and literacy.  The neat thing is that the garden is designed so teachers can bring their kids out into the garden for class.  Reminds me of college!

Gardening is good for grades and improving food consumption  

Studies show that third through fifth grade students who participated in “hands on” lessons in a school garden, they scored “significantly higher” on science achievement tests than students who learned in a typical classroom. When it comes to obesity, fruits and vegetables have been the “foods of concern,” due to lack of consumption – regardless of the reason.  Ask any parent of a young child, and many will tell you how picky their kid’s eating habits can be.

In one study with sixth graders, those who were involved in garden-based nutrition education programs increased their fruit and vegetable consumption by two and half servings per day.  However you don’t need peer-reviewed journals to prove it – simply try it at home.  You can try window pots or planters on a porch or patio.  In the winter, we have used an Aerogarden in our home, to grown herbs and tomatoes.

Gardening is good for parents

Gardening is a form of physical activity.  Research has shown the positive impact that participating with nature has on mental health and stress reduction: it helps to reduce blood pressure and muscle tension.  According to John Jeavons in his book, How To Grow More Vegetables, a skilled gardener can grow up to $2,000 in produce per year in a 10x10 plot with minimal inputs.

The good news is that there will be six Learning Gardens sprouting up in both Los Angeles and Chicago in 2012.  Local businesses are able to offset the cost to the schools through sponsorship.  There are community gardens throughout the U.S. and all states have a department of agriculture with master gardeners ready to help teach anyone how to find their green thumb.

Felicia D. Stoler, DCN, MS, RD, FACSM is a doctorally trained registered dietitian, exercise physiologist, TV personality and expert consultant in disease prevention, wellness and healthy living. She is the author of "Living Skinny in Fat Genes: The Healthy Way to Lose Weight and Feel Great." She hosted TLC's groundbreaking series "Honey We're Killing the Kids!" Become a fan of Felicia on Facebook, follow her on Twitter or visit her website FeliciaStoler.com