Learning gardens seek to combat childhood obesity

By Erin Prater

Give a child the proverbial choice between candy and a carrot, and he’ll likely choose candy — unless he helped grow the carrot.

The hypothesis was one of many posited by District 11 dietician Jamie Humphrey last fall as she helped to launch a large garden at the Galileo School of Math and Science.

The students proved her right.

“The little cherry tomatoes are so sweet — the kids just eat them up like they’re going out of style,” she said.

Humphrey hopes that noshing on nutrient-dense produce is a habit the school’s students will maintain.

“If kids are choosing healthy foods versus foods that are high in sugar, salt and fat, they will make healthier food choices as they grow into adults,” she said.

A growing problem

Nearly a third of American children are overweight or obese, according to a 2010 report released by the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity.

As such, they’re more likely to develop conditions such as asthma and type 2 diabetes at a young age.

For some kids, obesity is a phase. For others, it’s the start of a potentially deadly trend. Obese children are more likely to turn into obese adults. Obese adults are at a greater risk of developing a host of conditions such as heart disease and some forms of cancer.

Though Colorado is one of the more fit states in the nation, it isn’t immune to the epidemic. The number of obese children in the state climbed from 9.9 percent in 2003 to 14.2 percent in 2007, dropping Colorado from its position as a leader in childhood fitness to middle of the road when compared with other states, according to data released by The Colorado Health Foundation.

Among the nearly 1,700 children enrolled in Head Start and Colorado Preschool programs in El Paso County, numbers are even higher: 22 percent are obese.

“In this country, community and in our program, we have an epidemic of really young children who are suffering from obesity,” said Noreen Landis-Tyson, president of the Community Partnership for Child Development, which runs the programs in the county. “To me, this is a resource issue, an educational issue, a stress issue.”

Sukie Jackson, director of the Ruth Washburn Nursery Cooperative, agrees that childhood obesity sometimes boils down to a lack of education, not resources.

Since 1999, the center has been home to a number of learning gardens, including a vegetable garden with a chicken coop.

Though 20 percent of the center’s students are on scholarships, the majority come from households that can afford the center’s tuition, which tops out near $4,000 a year for four half-day sessions a week.

Yet some students still battle obesity, Jackson said.

The center’s parents have been known to have passionate discussions about the differences between carrot muffins, which are considered acceptable snacks for school, and frosted carrot cake, which is not.

“You can’t assume that someone who is not on a scholarship gets good food at home,” Jackson said.

An effective weapon

Learning gardens can’t cure childhood obesity, but studies show that they’re effective in combating it.

Travis Robinson would know. He’s the managing director of Boulder-based nonprofit The Kitchen Community, founded last year with the aim of whittling away at childhood obesity rates by connecting kids with “real food.”

Founders chose learning gardens as their weapon of choice because they increase kids’ consumption of fruits and veggies two and a half to three times. They do so by providing children with a “basic knowledge of where their food comes from,” Robinson said.

“They don’t know what grows underground, what grows aboveground,” he said. “It’s that basic knowledge that results in behavioral changes.”

The organization has so far helped to launch more than 20 learning gardens, including one at the Fort Carson Head Start Center, run by Landis-Tyson’s organization.

Volunteers installed the Fort Carson garden’s infrastructure in the fall, and center employees plan to sow seeds in the spring.

Come harvest season next year, they hope the garden yields a bumper crop of colorful, robust vegetables and herbs, which they plan to sneak into snacks and send home with children.

Landis-Tyson hopes that the Fort Carson center sees results similar to that of the Galileo School.

“It’s about taking the mystery out of some really healthy foods and giving kids a chance to try them,” she said.

“They’re much more likely to try something they’ve had a hand in growing than something that comes out of a can.

“Gardens take the mystery out of veggies and fruit.”

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