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School gardens can help kids eat healthier foods, study finds

Teaching kids about growing and preparing fresh food is crucial to creating lasting healthy habits

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Parents serve as role models when it comes to getting their kids to eat more fruits and vegetables; however, a new study is showing why getting kids involved in the food preparation process can also be beneficial to their healthy habits.

According to researchers from the University of Texas at Austin, school gardens can serve as a great opportunity to educate kids about the process of how fruits and vegetables are grown and maintained while also giving them more information about the benefits of eating more healthy foods. The study showed that programs like this in schools can be instrumental in changing kids’ eating habits. 

“A lot of the families in these schools live with food insecurity,” said researcher Jaimie Davis. “They live in food deserts and face a higher risk of childhood obesity and related health issues. 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.” 

Creating lasting healthy habits

The researchers partnered with more than a dozen elementary schools in Texas to see how school gardens can change kids’ eating habits. All of the schools received fruit and vegetable gardens, and classes were held for both students and their parents to teach them about how to care for the garden and how valuable fruits and vegetables are to their daily diets. Over the course of the school year, the kids reported on what they ate and had their blood pressure, weight, and body mass indices (BMIs) recorded at the start and conclusion of the study. 

The gardens were successful in changing kids’ eating habits and making them healthier overall. The program allowed kids to be introduced to new foods, and they also learned how to prepare healthy options at home. 

Perhaps most importantly, the students who participated in the garden program were eating half a serving more of vegetables each day than they were at the start of the study. While this may not seem like a huge change, the researchers say this is a step in the right direction that can set kids up for a lifetime of healthier eating. 

“We have been able to introduce children to a wide variety of vegetables that they’ve never had access to,” said Davis. “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.” 

Changing behaviors for better health

The researchers didn’t notice any significant changes to the kids’ weight, blood pressure, or BMIs, but they’re confident that with long-term healthy eating efforts, those positive changes will come. 

“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.” 

For families living in food deserts and with food insecurity, which the majority of the participants involved in this study were, the consequences can be felt both mentally and physically. Moving forward, the researchers hope that more work like these school-supported vegetable gardens can be implemented so that more young people can enjoy similar benefits.

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