Unearthing Healthy Habits

toddFall 2012

Middle School teacher Graham Goodloe engages students (from left) Sonya Wilkins, Joseline Gutierrez and Daeleesha Smith in the school’s garden.

Mablevale Magnet Middle School teacher Graham Goodloe engages students (from left) Sonya Wilkins, Joseline Gutierrez and Daeleesha Smith in the school’s garden.

Getting kids to eat their fruits and vegetables is every parent’s goal … and struggle. But with obesity rates at an all-time high, the value of teaching healthy eating habits is more important than ever.

Enter the Delta Garden Study.

“There are no other national studies that come close to the rigor or size of our study,” said Judith Weber, Ph.D., lead investigator of the study, associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics in the UAMS College of Medicine, and co-director of the Childhood Obesity Prevention Research Program at the Arkansas Children’s Hospital Research Institute (ACHRI).

The Delta Garden Study is one of the community-based childhood obesity research programs at ACHRI. Now in the final year of the four-year study, Weber is seeing her work come to fruition.

“With the school gardens we are addressing several areas, including increased fruit and vegetable intake, increased physical activity, improved academic performance and reduced social risk behaviors, such as bullying and fighting,” she said.

Kids can get all of that by working in a garden? Weber and her colleagues believe they can, in part because the study extends beyond planting seeds and watching them grow. It reaches into all areas of the middle school curriculum, from science and math to literacy and physical education.

“It’s more fun for the students to learn because they are actually experiencing the concepts. When they can see and feel the chemical change in hot compost, it brings it to life for them,” Weber said.

Twelve Arkansas schools are involved in the study so far. Half have a one-acre garden and greenhouse on their campus and receive the full program, with a curriculum that meets state guidelines and allows students to work in the garden at least twice each week as part of their regular schoolwork. The other six serve as the control group and have no garden.

pumpkin

The Mablevale Middle School garden is expecting a bumper crop of pumpkins this fall.

The study is funded by a $2 million grant from the USDA Agricultural Research Services Delta Obesity Prevention Research Unit.

Not only do the students plant and harvest the crops — promoting increased physical activity — they also learn to prepare the food in some unexpected ways. “Most kids have eaten carrots, but we teach them how to make carrot salad. We want them to know they can experience the fruits and vegetables in many different ways,” she said.

While most of the food produced in the gardens is used for class instruction, the remainder is prepared by the school cafeterias. Recipes also are sent home with the students in the hopes that they will share what they’ve learned with their families.

A surprise that arose from the study involves a segment of the student population that Weber hadn’t specifically considered: special education students. “We didn’t realize that special ed students would find a place to shine in the gardens,” she said. “You don’t have to be academically, artistically or athletically gifted to thrive here. That’s what we were hoping for.”

As the study concludes, Weber and her team will determine its success based on a number of factors, including test scores, diet, physical activity and grade point average. They’ve also enacted a plan for AmeriCorps volunteers to be placed in each school to help maintain the program after the funding concludes.

“If the outcomes are positive, it will open up the possibility of more funding with the goal of a statewide school garden network addressing Arkansas’ health and academic outcomes.”