In a recent opinion piece published by The New York Times, authors Dariush Mozaffarian and Dan Glickman assert that poor diet is the leading cause of mortality in the United States and that diet-related disease is a leading driver of skyrocketing healthcare costs and a major burden on our economy. For example, the estimated total economic cost of obesity alone is $1.72 trillion per year or 9.3 percent of our gross domestic product. Thankfully, the article presents a number of solutions relating to improving the diets and health of Americans, including the expansion of school garden programs.
Studies show that school gardens provide a host of benefits for student health, behavior, and academic success, and can powerfully influence families and communities to grow and eat more fresh fruits and vegetables. The American Federation of Teachers supports school gardens as an effective way to provide hands-on learning opportunities in a variety of subjects while cultivating lifelong healthy habits in students. The full-sensory experience of a garden catalyzes deeper levels of learning, as demonstrated by the finding that “nutritional messages delivered through school gardens have a greater impact on healthy food behaviors than nutrition education alone.” Based on this knowledge, the Community Preventive Services Task Force (CPSTF) of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends school-based gardening interventions in combination with nutrition education to increase children’s vegetable consumption.
Many of Hawaii’s parents, teachers, school administrators, and community partners recognize the value of school gardens, which, according to the annual Safety and Wellness Survey (SAWS), are now present in 217 (or 85%) of Hawaii’s K-12 public non-charter schools. The actual number of students and teachers currently involved in school garden programs, however, is not currently known and has not been made available since a statewide survey was conducted by the Hawai‘i Farm to School Hui in 2012.
While the majority of support services available to Hawaii’s school garden programs are provided by a number of community organizations (many of which are members of the Hawai‘i Farm to School Hui), Hawaii’s students and schools would significantly benefit from the establishment of a formal School Garden Program within the Hawai‘i Department of Education (HIDOE) Office of Curriculum and Instructional Design (OCID). Successful models for this approach exist within other state departments of education and school districts, including Oregon, Washington DC, Berkeley, Detroit, Cambridge, Oakland, and Chicago Public Schools.
HIDOE OCID has increasingly become an active partner in supporting school gardens, most recently by inviting the Hawai‘i Farm to School Hui to present a day-long Garden-Based Learning Networking and Informational Session for public school teachers and educational specialists. With additional support from the Hawai‘i Department of Health (HDOH), over 80 educators and support service providers from five islands gathered enthusiastically for a successful event on May 22, 2019, with the shared goal of “Growing the Love of Learning” among Hawaii’s students. Check out the playlist of recordings from the day’s presentations!
School gardens are part of a larger initiative to develop a coordinated continuum of agriculture education offerings for all students from preschool through post-secondary levels (P-20) in Hawai‘i. They also represent one of three core elements of successful farm to school programs, which are truly making an impact in the lives of students, with immense potential to do much more.
One parent recently shared her family’s life-changing experience since their child’s HCAP Head Start preschool began implementing a Farm to Early Care and Education (ECE) pilot program: “My child was one that loved fast food. After learning the difference between processed food and grown, she changed her eating habits. At this young age… her new, healthy diet has changed our entire household’s diet and extended to her grandparents and aunts. It has become a new lifestyle for us. Thank you!”
With continued and expanded support from the public and private sectors, all students, families, schools, and communities in Hawai‘i may one day be able to enjoy the profound benefits of school gardens.
School garden programs increase students’ access to, preference for, and consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables. They contribute to equity in education by engaging students who may not tend to thrive in enclosed classroom settings.
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