Supporters of school gardens were positively giddy with news yesterday that a three-year study of a garden and cooking initiative in Berkeley, Calif., schools had shown students more eager to eat vegetables and make healthy food choices. But a closer look at the study shows that these positive results were attributed only to fourth and fifth graders in two Berkeley elementary schools, and that students as they moved into middle school not only made little further progress, but actually regressed, even though they spent more time in gardening and cooking classes.
The message seems to be that unless your school has a highly structured program around a paid gardener, cooking instructor and nutrition curriculum, don’t expect a garden to increase your child’s appetite for vegetables.
In their report, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, said there was wide variation in how Berkeley schools rolled out the so-called School Lunch Initiative sponsored by Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Foundation. They also said it was difficult to establish a control group for their study against which to measure results. So what they did was divide Berkeley schools into two groups, one described as having a “highly developed” garden, cooking and nutrition education program, the other having a “less developed” program. They selected two elementary schools from each group and began tracking the progress of fourth and fifth graders using questionnaires and photographs of what the kids chose for lunch.
The two “less developed” schools, represented by 193 fourth- and fifth-graders, were distinguished by having no paid garden staff, little to no garden programming, and students who spent little or no time in the garden. In addition, these two schools had no paid cooking staff and no cooking classroom, and teachers in the school had done little to integrate nutrition concepts into the curriculum. These schools tended to have larger proportions of higher-income students and were thus ineligible for outside funding to pay for enhanced programs.
In contrast, the two “highly developed” elementary schools, represented by 134 fourth- and fifth-graders, had paid garden and cooking staff and the students spent 22 to 56 hours in garden and cooking classes each year. In addition, some teachers had integrated nutrition into the curriculum. These schools tended to have higher propotions of low-income students and were thus eligible for outside funding to pay for enhanced programs.
All three of the middle schools that these students eventually attended had garden and cooking programs in place, although some programs were more advanced than others.
Following the students from these four schools over a three-year period yielded these results:
* In year one, fourth- and fifth-grade students in schools with highly developed School Lunch Initiative components and those in schools with lesser-developed School Lunch Initiative components all ate about the same amount of fruit and vegetable servings per day (about 4 servings, or 2 cups). In year two, the younger students (fourth graders who had moved into fifth grade) attending the schools with highly developed School Lunch Initiative components had increased their consumption of vegetables by nearly 1 serving (0.4 cups), and for both fruits and vegetables by about 1.5 servings (0.7 cups), while those attending schools with lesser-developed School Lunch Initiative components had decreased their consumption of both fruits and vegetables by nearly 0.4 servings.
* As they became fifth-grade students in year two, fourth-grade students from schools with highly developed School Lunch Initiative components showed upward trends in family dinner prepared from scratch, eating family dinner nearly every day, using recipes from school at home and helping prepare dinner. In contrast, fourth-grade students from schools with lesser-developed School Lunch Initiative components did not show increasing trends in these behaviors from the fourth to fifth grade, although more students from these schools said they ate family dinner nearly every day and this remained consistent from year one to year two.
* Fourth-grade students from schools with highly developed School Lunch Initiative components showed significantly greater increases in preference for green leafy vegetables in particular as they moved into fifth grade, compared to fourth grade students from schools with lesser-developed School Lunch Initiative components. By seventh grade, preference for fruits and vegetables was similar among the various exposure groups, except preference for green leafy vegetables was associated with higher exposure to School Lunch Initiative components.
* Sixth-grade students showed no significant increase in fruit and vegetable consumption compared to the previous year, but seventh-grade students in the middle school with the most highly developed School Lunch Initiative components showed small increases in total fruit and vegetable consumption, putting them at a consumption level of about 4.5 servings of fruit and vegetables daily. Seventh grade students in the other middle school, where there was less exposure to School Lunch Initiative components, showed a mean decrease in both fruit and vegetable consumption of about one serving per day.
* By Year Three, seventh-grade students attending the middle school with the most highly developed School Lunch Initiative program had increased their nutrition knowledge scores by 5% over the previous year, while students attending the other two middle schools, which had lesser-developed components, had decreased their knowledge scores by 6% in one school and 14%in the other.
* Students attending the middle school with highly developed School Lunch Initiative components in year three showed more positive attitudes toward eating the food served at school, liking the cafeteria, agreeing that produce tastes better in-season, and agreeing that eating choices can help or hurt the environment compared to students attending the other two middle schools, which had lesser-developed School Lunch Initiative components.
* Parents with children in schools with highly developed School Lunch Initiative components were more likely than parents with children in schools with lesser-developed School Lunch Initiative components to agree that school had changed their child’s knowledge about making healthy food choices (60%versus 36%) and their child’s attitudes about food (42% versus 19%), and had improved their child’s eating habits (35% versus 16%).
Clearly, exposure at the elementary school level to garden and cooking programs with paid staff can improve children’s eating habits. So how to account for the fact that progress comes to a virtual standstill in middle school, even where sixth- and seventh-graders spend many hours in the garden and in cooking classes and teachers have integrated nutrition into their lesson plans?