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Sow and Tell

When children plant gardens at school, good nutrition is more likely to grow.

September 09, 2000|JULIE BAWDEN DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's no secret that many children aren't eating enough fruits and vegetables. What is surprising to experts, though, is that the secret to getting kids to eat their greens lies in the ground.

"I've been a dietitian for more than 20 years and telling kids to eat their vegetables because they're good for them is ineffective," said Cathy Williamson of Villa Park, who has worked on several school gardens. "I don't think there is anything more effective in getting kids to try new foods, especially vegetables, than [if they work in a] garden."

Williamson, who is a University of California Cooperative Extension master gardener, says gardening makes produce interesting to children and that makes them want to add it to their food list.

"In all of the school gardens I've worked on, the kids have [tasted] every vegetable they've grown," she said. "And when given an opportunity to choose their own seeds, many picked unusual varieties, such as rutabagas and turnips."

In addition to teaching good nutrition, gardening teaches children about a wide variety of subjects, including math, science and language arts.

"The garden applies to just about every subject," said Jeffrey Grisham, a fifth-grade teacher who includes a garden in his curriculum and offers an after-school garden program at Kennedy Elementary in Santa Ana.

"We have a limited amount of space to work with, so we had to plan our garden, which necessitated using math skills," he said. "I taught the kids about volume, perimeter and area. We also used some language arts skills when we wrote to different companies asking them to donate items for the garden. And I incorporated science when I talked about the life cycle of plants and growing from seed."

UCCE Master Gardener Bobbie Salmacia teaches agriculture at Mission Viejo High. "The garden is a great place for kids to be eased into a variety of subjects, including science, math and environmental studies. With the garden, children learn that you can recycle everything by using it or putting it in the compost pile. In one school year's time, they can see the entire cycle of life."

Gardening also is a lesson in ecology, Williamson said. "It's probably the best place for kids to learn about the interdependence of the different organisms in nature, including people, plants, animals and even fungus. Through the garden they come to understand that all insects aren't bad and soil isn't just dirt."

Disappointment is another life lesson. One spring, Williamson's students planted seeds before unusually heavy rains.

"Although the kids were all bummed out because the seeds washed away, the experience taught them what people in agriculture live with all of the time," she said. "Even though you do your best to plant, strange weather can entirely wipe out your crop, and there's nothing you can do about it."

State officials have made gardening an option in public schools. In 1995, Delaine Eastin, state superintendent of public instruction, called for "a garden in every school."

To the surprise of many, the number of school gardens has increased. "Ten years ago when we came out with the idea of giving grants for school gardens, I was skeptical," says Susan Magrann, regional nutrition education specialist with the California Department of Education, Nutrition Services Division. Her unit awards $1,000 nutrition enhanced school garden grants.

"There's definitely been an increase in people applying for the grants," she said. "It's amazing how it's caught on."

Grisham of Kennedy Elementary combines garden activities with the "5 a Day--Power Play!" campaign run by the California Department of Health Services and the Public Health Institute. The campaign uses cooking, singing and games to encourage children ages 9 to 11 and their families to eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day.

"Many of the activities involve preparing a dish from the garden and eating it, which the kids love," Grisham said. "When we talk about the different food groups, it helps to have a banana in your hand or to look at beans growing in the school garden."

The program has a rap music tape that expounds the virtues of eating fruits and vegetables and a cookbook full of celebrities' favorite foods, such as Oprah's Outtasight Salad.

"The theory is that if you catch kids young enough, they can begin good dietary habits that will carry into adulthood," said Anne Cotter, the campaign's local director and nutrition, family and consumer sciences advisor for the University of California Cooperative extension. "The activities are designed to be fun."

'5 a Day--Power Play!' Information

* For information regarding the "5 a Day--Power Play!" campaign and its class materials, which include a teacher's kit, 35 cookbooks in English and Spanish and a rap music cassette, call Susan Davidson at (714) 708-1613.

* The national "5 a Day" campaign's Web site is http://5aday.nci.nih.gov The California campaign's site is http://www.ca5aday.com.

* The California Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom offers a variety of materials on school gardens, including lesson plans and curriculum. (800) 700-2482.

* The Dairy Council of California has a nutrition program for schools. (888) 868-3133; http://www.dairycouncilofca.org.

* The Dole Food Co. has a 5 A Day Adventures nutrition education CD-ROM for elementary-age children. Teachers can send a written request for CD-ROMs on school letterhead to Dole Food Co., 5 A Day Adventures, P.O. Box 6059, Oakland, CA 94603-0059. Parents can purchase the CD for $14.95 through http://www.dole5aday.com.

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