Garden Project in Schools Linked to Lower BMI in Kids

Norra MacReady

May 22, 2017

An intensive approach to nutrition education is associated with a promising shift in measures of overweight and obesity in a population of children 9 to 10 years of age, the authors of a new study report.

The findings suggest that well-designed interventions can produce salutary changes in children's food knowledge and eating habits in the short period of just 1 school year, Rachel E Scherr, PhD, from the department of nutrition and Center for Nutrition in Schools, University of California, Davis, and colleagues write in their paper in the May issue of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.

A prominent feature of the program was the opportunity to work in gardens established at participating schools. The garden days "were the students' absolute favorite days," Dr Scherr said in a podcast about the study on the journal's website. The students planted and harvested a variety of vegetables and then prepared them in classroom cooking demonstrations.

The data come from the Shaping Healthy Choices Program (SHCP), which used a variety of methods to teach the students basic principles of nutrition and healthy eating. Along with maintaining the gardens, interventions included cooking demonstrations, school health fairs, purchasing regional produce, family newsletters, and school-site wellness committees. All of these activities were coordinated with the lessons children were learning in the classroom.

The goals of the SHCP were to improve the children's nutritional knowledge and choices and to create family and community environments that supported those choices, with the aim of trying to prevent childhood obesity.

Program Requires All Parts Together to Be a Success

The authors tested this approach in four schools, two each in Northern California and the California Central Valley. One school in each location was randomly chosen to participate in the intervention, while the other served as a control.

At the control schools, the nutrition educators from SHCP assisted teachers in activities unrelated to nutrition or health, matching the time spent in those classrooms to the time spent at the intervention schools.

Data were obtained in the fall of 2012, just before the SHCP began, and in the spring of 2013, when the school year ended.

A total of 245 children participated in the intervention, with 198 children in the control group. The children were similar with respect to parent education and household income.

At the end of the school year, children at both intervention schools had improved scores on tests of nutrition knowledge and identification of vegetables, relative to children at the control schools (P < .001 for both comparisons), but overall they reported no changes in fruit or vegetable intake.

But there were some marked differences between the two school districts.

The Central Valley school did not use the salad bar, held only one health fair, and did not allow the cooking demonstrations to be conducted in the classroom. These differences may have contributed to the differences observed, say the authors.

And there was also a correlation between greater consumption of vegetables and improved body mass index (BMI), "so the decrease in BMI may be due to a shift in dietary behaviors."

At baseline, the mean BMI percentile among children at the intervention schools was 71.8, but by the year's end it had decreased by a mean of 6.08 percentage points (P < .01). The mean BMI percentile for children in the control groups was 64.2 at baseline, which decreased by 2.12 percentage points.

In Northern California, 55.6% of the children in the intervention group were obese or overweight at baseline, compared with 37.8% at follow-up. Of those students, 25.9% exhibited an improved BMI classification, compared with 4.8% of students in the control school.

In contrast, in the Central Valley, improved BMI classifications were seen in 4.2% of children at the intervention school and 5.6% of children at the control school, respectively.

The change in the Northern California students "demonstrated that the SHCP was effective due to positive health messages and reinforcing nutrition concepts throughout the school and home environments," Dr Scherr said.

Overall, the authors conclude, the findings suggest that comprehensive nutrition education in schools may have a beneficial effect on rates of childhood obesity.

Funding for this study was provided by University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources, US Department of Agriculture Nutrition Institute of Food and Agriculture HATCH Project, US Department of Agriculture, and University of California Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program–Education. The authors disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

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J Nutr Educ Behav. 2017;49:368-377. Article

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