A Healthy Nutrition Environment: Linking Education, Activity, and Food through School Gardens
Nutrition is an essential building block for student success. Healthy, active, and well-nourished children are more likely to attend school and are more prepared and motivated to learn.1 While the primary responsibility of schools is to foster academic achievement, schools have an exceptional opportunity to guide children toward healthier lifestyles by creating a healthy nutrition environment.
State Superintendent Jack O’Connell has made the health and fitness of California’s students one of his top priorities. He is working with the Governor, the Legislature, the State Board of Education and other organizations to ensure that schools create an environment that supports students in developing lifelong habits of nutrition and fitness.2
Impact on Children’s Health and Nutrition
Schools with a healthy nutrition environment provide dynamic settings, such as a school garden, that foster improved student health. Students who participate in school garden projects discover fresh food, make healthier food choices, and are physically active. Anecdotal evidence is strong — teachers relate that students eat what they grow. Research corroborates this — children who plant and harvest their own fruits and vegetables are more likely to eat them.3-7
The California Department of Health Services evaluated the impact of the 5-A Day Power Play! Campaign, a large-scale social marketing initiative. Results of the study indicated that students who had experienced gardening not only ate more fruits and vegetables at baseline, but also demonstrated greater increases in consumption as a result of the intervention.4
In other nutrition education projects, elementary children studied nutrition in the classroom while growing vegetables outdoors in their own gardens. Students’ nutrition knowledge increased, as did their preference for vegetables.5, 6 Improving the desire to taste vegetables is a first step in developing healthier eating patterns.An evaluation of The Edible Schoolyard program shows similar results.7 Students who made the greatest gains in overall understanding of ecological principles made significantly greater gains in the numbers of serving of fruits and vegetables they reported eating.
Impact on Academic Achievement
Educators find that using the environment as an integrating context to learning creates the framework for interdisciplinary, collaborative, student-centered, experiential, and engaged learning. Environment-based education employs natural ecosystems as a context for learning. The “environment” may be a river, a forest, a city park, or a garden carved out of an asphalt playground.8
Five major studies have documented the educational efficacy of using the environment as an integrated context for learning. These studies have examined the implementation of environment-based education at 66 schools, including California schools.9-13
In 1999, the California Department of Education (CDE) commissioned a second study of the educational efficacy of environment-based education. The study examined eight pairs of environment-based education treatment and control schools/programs in California. Data from this California study combined with data from the prior study found that over 77 percent of students in environment-based education programs scored higher than their peers across all standardized tests and had higher grade point averages.
The literature not only supports the role of environment-based education in academic achievement, but also finds that nutrition education and nutrition programs that are linked to school gardens improve academic achievement.8, 9, 14 One of the strongest justifications for nutrition education, nutrition programs, and nutrition services in schools is the effect on students’ cognitive performance and their educational achievement.14
A Garden in Every School
Recognizing the educational and health benefits of school gardens, the California Department of Education launched the Garden in Every School Initiative in 1995. Subsequently, the Governor and Legislature, acknowledging the value of school garden projects, enacted several bills that promote instructional school gardens:
- Assembly Bill 1014, Instructional School Gardens (1999) – establishes the instructional school garden program.
- Senate Bill 19, The Pupil Health, Nutrition, and Achievement Act (2001) – identifies school gardens as one way to increase student preferences for fresh fruits and vegetables.
- Assembly Bill 1634, Nutrition Education (2002) – further supports school gardens through identifying best practices and supporting a grant program.
- Assembly Bill 1535, California Instructional School Garden Program (2006) – authorizes the CDE to award $15 million for grants to promote, develop, and sustain instructional school gardens.
The Nutrition Services Division leads the Garden in Every School program and collaborates with individuals and organizations that support school gardens, including public and private agricultural agencies, waste management agencies, health agencies, and others. With 3000 school gardens, the Garden in Every School program reaches throughout the state to enhance education and health.
The mission of the garden program has expanded to include links with surrounding agricultural areas through school cafeterias, while maintaining the natural connection with cooking in the classroom and school recycling. This concept of linking schools with local farmers to provide fresher, tastier, healthier school meals is known as Farm to School and is considered a part of a healthy school environment. When fresh, farm-direct, seasonal food is included in school lunch programs, both children and farmers benefit. Combining healthy school lunch choices with nutrition education, farm visits, school gardens, and cooking projects in the classroom gives children a better opportunity to develop healthy eating habits that last a lifetime.
For more information about the Garden in Every School program, please contact the Nutrition Services Division, California Department of Education, at 800-952-5609 or 916-445-0850.
- Tufts University, School of Nutrition. Center on Hunger, Poverty, and Nutrition Policy. The Link between Nutrition and Cognitive Development in Children. Policy Statement. Medford, Massachusetts, 1994.
- “Healthy Children Ready to Learn,” the Superintendent’s White Paper on Health, Nutrition, and Physical Fitness,
- J.L. Morris and others, “Nutrition to Grow On: A garden-enhanced nutrition education curriculum for upper-elementary school children,” Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, Vol. 34 (2002), 175.
- S. Foerster, J. Gregson, and D.L. Beall, “The California Children’s 5-A-Day Power Play! Campaign: Evaluation of a large-scale social marketing initiative,” Family and Community Health, Vol. 21 (1998), 46.
- J. Morris, A. Neustadter, and S. Zidenberg-Cherr, “First-grade Gardeners More Likely to Taste Vegetables,” California Agriculture, (January-February 2001), 43.
- J. Morris and S. Zidenberg-Cherr, “Garden-enhanced Nutrition Curriculum Improves Fourth-grade School Children’s Knowledge of Nutrition and Preferences for Some Vegetables,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association, Vol. 102 (2002), 24.
- J.M. Murphy,. “Findings from the Evaluation Study of the Edible Schoolyard,” Center for Ecoliteracy, Berkeley, California, April 2003.
- “School Garden Statewide Survey – 2002, ”Nutrition Services Division, California Department of Education, (unpublished).
- Center for Ecoliteracy, The Edible Schoolyard. Learning in the Real World, Berkeley, California, 1999.
- D. Desmond, J. Grieshop, and A. Subramaniam, “Revisiting Garden Based Learning in Basic Education: Philosophical roots, historical foundations, best practices and products, impacts, outcomes, and future directions,” Sustainable Development Department, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) , May 2003.
- G.A. Lieberman and L.L. Hoody, Closing the Achievement Gap: Using the Environment as an Integrating Context for Learning. State Education and Environment Roundtable, San Diego, California, 1998.
- T. Stoddart and others, Language Acquisition through Science Inquiry.”. Symposium presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Association, Montreal, Canada, Santa Cruz: University of California, Santa Cruz, 1999.
- For more information on these and other California bills, visit California Legislative Information .
- Life Lab Science Program, Getting Started – A Guide for Creating School Gardens as Outdoor Classrooms. Center for Ecoliteracy, Berkeley, California, 1997.
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