In April of 2011, USDA Food and Nutrition Services awarded a consortium of four Land Grant Universities the People’s Garden School Pilot Program. Washington State University served as the lead institution in collaboration with Cornell University, Iowa State University, and the University of Arkansas to develop the Healthy Gardens, Healthy Youth (HGHY) program. Healthy Gardens, Healthy Youth built on the leadership capacity of Cooperative Extension and its position within the national Land Grant University network to accomplish the outcomes set forth for the People’s Garden School Pilot Program.
As a pilot of the People’s Garden School Program, HGHY utilized the community-based Cooperative Extension system to develop and implement school community gardens designed to offer students at high-poverty schools an opportunity for improved access to nutritious food through learning about nutrition and agriculture production. The pilot program ended in 2013.
Goal 1. Increase Fruit and Vegetable Consumption Engage youth enrolled in high-poverty schools to increase access to, and consumption of, fruit and vegetables through hands-on learning about growing food.
Goal 2. Empower Youth in Their Communities Empower youth to use and share their new interests, knowledge and skills to grow and sustain gardens and choose healthy foods at school, home and in their communities.
Goal 3. Contribute Toward a Sustainable Environment and Food System Develop children’s, youths’ and educators’ appreciation for the public health, environmental and social benefits gardens provide to local communities (i.e., physical activity, connection to nature, fresh food production, and social networks).
Goal 4. Build a Nationwide Network Build a network of Extension educators and volunteers working across disciplines to leverage existing federal, state, and local investments in programs like SNAP-Ed, 4-H/Youth Development, Master Gardener Volunteers/community-based horticulture programs through a common garden-based learning program, which can be replicated nationwide.
The states involved in HGHY were intentionally chosen for the diversity that their climates, planting seasons and local food preferences would bring to gardening for the project. Our research design and selection of states was intended to make HGHY flexible enough to meet the needs and desires of each local community while being robust enough to evaluate the impact of the project on various outcomes. Within this framework we allowed, and encouraged, local programs to determine which plants and types of gardens work best for them, and actively promoted a collaborative design process at each site. Through our national and state-level teams, we assisted local communities in making the numerous choices related to creating and sustaining a garden program. For example, in selecting vegetable cultivars, participants considered factors such as:
- Climate and local growing conditions
- Cultural or ethnic food preferences in the local area
- Other nutritional programming occurring simultaneously in the school (e.g. SNAP-Ed, etc.) that produce from the garden could support or reinforce
- Opportunities to enhance other educational lessons with the produce choices, for example math or science lessons associated with produce or growing practices in the garden
To implement the project locally, 24 Extension educators across Arkansas, Iowa, New York, and Washington were selected for their ability to build successful relationships with schools and community partners, deliver the educational toolkit lessons and properly execute the research activities. By the conclusion of the project, these Extension educators had collected 86,000 surveys, taken 129,000 lunch tray photos, implemented 4,000 educational toolkit lessons, and planted 6,200 square feet of gardens.
The Healthy Gardens, Healthy Youth (HGHY) study examined the effects of school gardens on children’s fruit and vegetable (FV) consumption, FV preferences, knowledge of nutritional and plant science; and STEM self-efficacy. This study targeted schools that did not already have gardens and had at least 50% of students qualifying for free or reduced price meals. During the grant enrollment phase, 80 schools in Arkansas, Iowa, New York, and Washington were screened for eligibility. Ultimately, 60 of those schools met inclusion criteria and a total of 47 schools participated in this study. The participants in this study were children in grades 2, 4 and 5 (ages 6-12 years) at the start of the study, and were followed into grades 3, 5 and 6 respectively over the 18 months of data collection.
In this longitudinal, randomized controlled trial, schools within each state and region (rural, suburban or urban areas) were randomly assigned to receive the intervention or to serve on the waitlist control group. Baseline data were collected in Fall 2011 followed by garden implementation (Spring 2012) and three waves of follow-up data collection (late Spring 2012, Fall 2012, late Spring 2013). Waitlist control schools received gardens and access to the Educational Toolkit following the final data collection period (late Spring 2013).
Each class in the intervention group received a raised bed or container garden kit; access to the Educational Toolkit consisting of lessons, activities, suggested recipes, and a garden implementation guide; and on-line training on how to use the toolkit. Lessons were delivered by a Cooperative Extension educator or the classroom teacher. In some cases, trained volunteers (e.g. Master Gardeners from the local Cooperative Extension office) provided additional assistance. Classrooms in the wait list control group received a garden kit and access to the Educational Toolkit once data collection was completed in Spring 2013.
Schools were active partners in this research, collecting data as well as delivering educational lessons and activities by teachers. Local Extension professionals and volunteers, such as Master Gardener Volunteers, worked with students and teachers to create, plant, harvest and maintain the garden, as well as support teachers in delivery of hands-on learning. Families, caregivers and other community members contributed information about the home environment and eating practices, learning about nutrition concepts, and trying out new recipes at home.
We’ve also created a project Facebook page that enabled schools, families and volunteers to share stories, videos and photos about their gardening experiences, such as produce grown and harvested, or salads tossed!