Growing healthy habits through school gardens

by Jan Spann

You may have read some of the studies in magazines and books about today’s generation of children who may not live as long as their parents. Issues such as less physical activity and a diet high in processed foods contribute to this trend.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has funded grants to encourage better food choices and more physical activity. One such grant is right here in Arkansas.

In partnership with Arkansas Children’s Hospital Research Institute and University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, the Delta Garden Study is a community-based project with a focus on preventing childhood obesity by increasing access to fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables.

The pilot project began last year at Mabelvale Middle School under the direction of Hendrix graduate Emily English. This year the program debuted in four schools: Marshall, Highland, Harrisburg and Monticello. Middle school students were specifically chosen because they are beginning to make personal decisions, and they also have influence in family choices.

The Delta Garden Study is one of seven studies funded through the USDA, Agricultural Research Service’s Delta Obesity Prevention Research Unit. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that Arkansas has a slightly higher incidence of childhood obesity than the national average. And statistics indicate that 80 percent of children overweight at age 10-15 are obese at age 25. The 2009 report also showed a link between weight issues and the lack of physical activity and fruit and vegetable intake.

The Delta Garden Study grant is a four-year program (2009-13) that will include 20 middle schools in the Delta and Central regions of Arkansas. Selected by demographics of free and reduced lunch rates, ethnic minorities and childhood obesity data, each garden school has a pair-matched school that serves as a control.

While the key goals are to increase fruit and vegetable intake and increase physical activity, the authors believe the program will also increase school bonding and improve academic achievement.

“Each garden school has a full-time garden program specialist who lives in the town and begins building the garden during the summer months while developing the planting and harvesting calendar,” English said. “When the schools open in the fall, the students get their first introduction to the garden through twice weekly science classes. The students will expand this beginning plot 200 percent as they turn soil, build raised beds, start seeds, mulch, weed, water, transplant, compost and use the bounty.”

The one-acre garden will include vegetables, fruits, flowers, worms (vermicomposting), rainwater harvesting systems, a greenhouse and chickens. Each component has a study plan from which the science teachers and garden specialists co-teach. Curriculum spans the full school year and includes teacher training, student learning notebooks, science fair tasks and quizzes.

But it’s not so academic as it may sound. During the initial student/garden introduction at Mabelvale Middle School, the students made pesto with fresh basil and took some home for the family. “My grandfather never tasted anything like that and wants me to bring him some more,” one student said.

The students must also log at least 50 after-school hours in a garden club where they can involve family members and the community. That can include putting on a farmers’ market, inviting family members and friends to help in the garden after school and cooking lessons. It’s up to the school district to provide transportation and to consider the garden’s bounty for the cafeteria.

Another innovative aspect of the Delta Garden Study has brought Food Corps service members to assist with development, teaching and after-school activities. As part of the 70,000 member Americorps program, Food Corps interns have been placed at Dunbar Community Garden and Mabelvale Magnet Middle School to assist with development and sustainability.

While it’s too early to assess these gardens’ impact on students, English knows that the 200 students invested at each school site express curiosity and ownership in the process. “Garden activities are designed to be fun, and we learned that it even relieves stress after a hard task such as benchmark tests. It’s a valuable life lesson in how they can be catalysts for healthy change.”

If you are concerned about the disconnect between healthy food and children, here are a few resources available to help you start a community and/or school garden.

The Delta Garden Study recruiting team is actively seeking middle schools in Arkansas’ Delta and Central regions to participate in future programs. You’ll find information on that and Food Corps Service members, volunteer and intern opportunities at

Life Lab ( is a national leader in farm- and garden-based education. The website offers a creative array of experiments and ideas for teachers, parents and community, as well as curricula, workshops and activities such as camps, field trips and internships.

In 2009, Whole Foods Market shoppers funded a comprehensive set of free online tools for use in changing school lunch programs. With a goal to improve children’s nutrition and wellness, the Whole Kids Foundation is currently offering $2,000 school garden grants. Details are available on the website:

Or, go straight to the source at USDA where grants are available through the National Institute of Food and Agriculture at or the Healthy Meals Resource System at

Make your voice heard and make our kids healthier.