School gardens are a nationwide phenomena stretching back more than 20 years, beginning most famously with Alice Waters’ Edible School Yard in Berkeley. So you would think academicians should know by now if raising vegetables on school grounds can change student eating habits.
Apparently they don’t. Which is why the National Institutes of Health has awarded nutritionists at the University of Texas more than $3 million to study the garden effect on elementary school students.
One of the schools in the Texas Sprouts study is Decker Elementary, which neighbors Green Gate Farms. Two years ago, much to my delight, its students actually walked to our farm for a school tour. They got exercise AND a taste of organic food in the same trip.
Unfortunately, there are few farms like ours for schools to partner with. Which is both sad and ironic when you realize that most schools are built on land that was once farmed. As cities grow, the farms are pushed further out; they become quaint relics of an era that seemingly has no connection or relevance in our modern lives.
When I worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 15 years ago, understanding and controlling the spiraling obesity epidemic became a top priority. Back then, the possible benefits of linking farms to schools was never considered. Farms were so far down the food chain no one thought about inviting them to the table. Or maybe there wasn’t any room left once Big Food broke down the school doors and put their products in every hallway.
The year I left my job there, CDC brought Michael Pollen to its campus for a high-profile obesity summit. They invited representatives from every stakeholder in the food system to pick his brain for two day. Everyone, that is, except the person who actually grows the stuff they had built their professions on. One of my proudest moments was crashing the meeting and taking a seat. My official job at CDC was speechwriter for the director but I introduced myself as an organic farmer.
Because of our education mission and close proximity to the city, Green Gate has been fortunate to partner with numerous schools as they grapple not only with obesity and lack of exercise but nature deficit and food illiteracy. Through the Sustainable Food Center (SFC), we have sold vegetables directly to schools (farm to school). We have hosted schools at the farm so students can incorporate their curriculum into the farm experience (school to farm). We’ve also partnered with the Dell Medical Hospital’s obesity prevention program to introduce adolescent patients, their parents and nutritionists to meals that include fresh organic vegetables (farm to hospital or prescription farming, you might call it).
More than one quarter of public schools now have gardens but they remain a niche rather than the norm, especially in low-income school districts. And surprisingly, only a few randomized controlled trials have studied their benefits. Smaller, less rigorous studies, such as SFC’s Sprouting Healthy Kids intervention have shown multiple benefits, including increased consumption of vegetables. The Sprouting Healthy Kids intervention consists of six components, three of which our farm was involved in — farmers’ visits to schools, taste testing, and field trips to farms.
As government-funded research slowly teases out the benefits of school gardens, a handful of innovative teachers are taking bold steps beyond the garden and into the farm.
Today, for example, we had ninth graders from the Waldorf School for an orientation before they spend next week here absorbing themselves in the farm life. Tomorrow, fifth graders from the Austin Jewish Academy will be doing the same but taking their school-to-farm program to the next level: making the farm their classroom for an entire semester of Fridays and incorporating their subjects into the holistic and organic systems a sustainable farm depends on. And next week a dozen students from Tulane University will spend alternative spring break at our river farm.
From elementary school to university, the farm serves the students and students serve the farm. They experience hands-on learning that stimulates all the senses, that breathes fresh air into an education system that too often is as stifling, predictable, and sterile as the over-built environment in which it resides.
If what school gardens give students is a healthy snack, the farm has the potential to give them a full meal. Its time for NIH and CDC to get their heads out of the weeds and look around. There’s a whole new field out there waiting for research.