ISU Headlines

To get kids to eat vegies maybe have them grow a garden first

Posted March 27, 2007

Perhaps the key to getting elementary school children to eat their vegetables is to have them grow the vegetables first. That’s the gist of a research study carried out by former Idaho State University master of public health (MPH) student Jessica McAleese.

The results of McAleese’s study completed at three Pocatello elementary schools are so intriguing that her research results will be published in the April 2007 issue of Journal of the American Dietetic Association. The article “Garden-Based Nutrition Education Affects Fruit and Vegetable Consumption in Sixth-Grade Adolescents” is co-authored by Dr. Linda Rankin, ISU associate professor of health and nutrition sciences. Rankin was McAleese’s major advisor while she was in graduate school. McAleese earned her MPH last spring and is now a patient advocate for the Portneuf Medical Center.

“Jessica master’s thesis is one of best I’ve had during the 16 years that I’ve been at ISU,” Rankin said. “ The scope of her research was amazing and the results speak for themselves – it’s unusual and an honor for the results of a master’s student’s work to be published in a major scientific journal.”

McAleese completed her study in 2005. It’s stated purpose “was to investigate the effects garden-based nutrition education had on adolescents’ preferences towards fruits and vegetables as well as their consumption of fruits and vegetables.” McAleese tracked 122 sixth graders for 12 weeks at three different schools. Students at all three schools received pre- and post-testing about vegetable/fruit consumption, which included surveys designed to measure food preferences and food consumption. The schools were comprised of a control that received no nutrition education, and two “treatment groups.” Both treatment groups received nutrition education, using the guide “Nutrition in the Garden” developed at Texas A&M University. However, only one school participated in gardening activities.

“Basically, the school that had the gardening program as part of its nutrition-education curriculum had significant increases in fruit and vegetable consumption, and intake of fiber and vitamins A and C,” McAleese said. “I was really excited, not just to see the results of the study, but to see how excited the kids became about healthy food and healthy eating.”

Kids at the school that included both the nutrition education and gardening activities were able to help grow and harvest vegetables grown in a garden on private property a half-block away from the school. The students visited the garden at least once a week.  The garden had two raised strawberry beds, a large herb garden and vegetables grown included potatoes, corn, peppers, peas, beans, squash, greens, broccoli, tomatoes, kohlrabi, cantaloupe, cucumbers, sunflowers and more. 

The additional nutrition programming that the “garden” school kids received included hands-on as well as academic lessons. The hands-on programming included a wide variety of activities as routine as making and eating salads, to as diverse as having a “spa day” that included giving and receiving pumpkin facials. Students were also taught how to cook and prepare healthy vegetables, from corn on the cob to multi-ingredient salsa.

“All of the sudden it was really cool for them to eat a carrot or lettuce because they had been involved in growing and harvesting them,” McAleese said. “It was exciting to be part of that evolution of thought by the students.”

At the completion of the study, McAleese and Rankin, with the help of ISU statistical consultant Teri Peterson did a comprehensive statistical analysis of the study’s data.“The results help demonstrate the necessity of hands-on activities when attempting to change nutrition-related behavior such as fruit and vegetable consumption, “ McAleese said. “While further research is needed, it’s heartening to speculate that garden-based nutrition education, when implemented during a child’s or adolescent's early years, may be one small tool with tremendous impact.”

McAleese and Rankin previously presented the results of the research at ISU Kasiska College of Health Professions Research Day in 2005, the Idaho Conference on Health Care in October 2005 and at the American Dietetic Association annual meeting in October 2005.

The Web site for the Journal of the American Dietetic Association is www.adajournal.org/.

For more information about ISU health and nutrition sciences or MPH programs, visit www.isu.edu/kchp/.