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School gardens sprout up across nation to curb obesity

To determine how well elementary school gardens can help counter childhood obesity by boosting produce consumption and healthful habits in youth, extension associates at Cornell University Cooperative Extension-New York City's (CUCE-NYC) Urban Environment Program are co-leading the national "Healthy Gardens, Healthy Youth" People's Garden School Pilot project with colleagues at Washington State University, Iowa State University and University of Arkansas.

Gretchen Ferenz and Caroline Tse of CUCE-NYC also lead the effort in New York, working closely with educators and executive directors in six Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) county associations; their hope is that the project will serve as a pilot garden-based learning program in schools.

"In New York, these associations -- including Delaware, Monroe, Rockland, Schenectady, Suffolk and Wayne counties -- are working with 15 elementary schools and reaching more than 800 second- through sixth-graders across the state," says Ferenz, a co-principal investigator. "Teams of extension educators, volunteers and school staff have been instrumental in administering research activities, helping schools build and maintain their gardens, and assisting with delivery of lessons as part of the project's Educational Toolkit."

Among the schools that started a garden this past spring is Downsville Central School, a K-12 school located in New York's Hudson Valley. Prior to building the garden, the students selected which vegetables they wanted to plant for their region's climate and growing season; their choices included broccoli, cauliflower, garlic, squash, beets and carrots. "Every school is different in how children, staff and volunteers have planned and planted the school gardens," said Jeanne Darling, executive director of CCE in Delaware County who is working with three schools. "It's been fun to work together and of course we are looking forward to a harvest of success stories in each school."

Yates Magnet and Keane Elementary School in the increasingly diverse city of Schenectady, N.Y., also started gardens this year. In presenting lessons on garden planting, Denise Kolankowski, senior extension resource educator with CCE Schenectady County noted that the students "had a great time playing with the worms" during a lesson on vermicomposting. She added: "The students were so excited to 'eat from the garden' -- one of the classes actually started picking and eating the lettuce while sitting at the edge of the garden bed. When they pulled radishes from the ground, the students were so amazed by how big they had grown." This past summer lettuce, cucumbers, peppers and snap beans harvested from these schools were donated to local organizations Schenectady ARC and the City Mission.

This fall, teachers will use new Educational Toolkit lessons, compiled by Extension specialists in New York, Iowa and Washington, to reinforce science and nutrition concepts. Students will continue to participate in research activities and have opportunities to harvest cool-weather crops. Efforts will be made to connect classrooms in New York with their counterparts in Arkansas, Iowa and Washington.

"It was a wonderful experience to see how excited those kids were in trying to study plants," said Caroline Kiang, team coordinator for the Horticulture Program at CCE-Suffolk County on Long Island. "The new teachers have been enthusiastic -- one teacher is local and is willing to lead a summer garden program next year. I also met a new parent who is more than willing to help out in the garden. ... It has been very encouraging."

The national People's Garden School Pilot program is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service.