Addressing Community Health with Garden-Based Nutrition Education

Linda Benedict  |  9/9/2014 4:25:12 AM

Grace Peterson, Joan Almond, Diane Uzzle, Cathy Judd and Gwen Fontenot

Many people in Louisiana face nutrition-related health challenges, including diabetes, heart disease and obesity, all of which can positively impacted by choosing healthful food. The U.S. Department of Agriculture in its My Plate campaign encourages people to eat more fruits and vegetables by including them in every meal. A recent study by the Pennington Biomedical Research Center found that only 11.7 percent of Louisiana youth eat the daily recommended servings of vegetables and only 5.9 percent eat the daily recommended servings of fruit.

There are four major barriers to nutritious food access. One is that some people live in “food deserts,” where there are no stores or markets nearby with fresh and healthful food. Second, some people may not have financial access because nutritious food can be expensive. In addition, there are two knowledge barriers to choosing nutritious food – knowing what to eat and knowing how to prepare it in a healthful manner.

Extension agents in the LSU AgCenter Northwest Region are addressing the multidimensional factors involved in changing the attitudes and behaviors of people at risk for nutrition-related diseases through a program called FIT (Food Initiative Taskforce) for Kids. This program teaches participants basic skills to connect with nutritious food. Youth participants and adult volunteers learn about planting fruits and vegetables, garden maintenance, harvesting, processing, and then preparing, presenting and enjoying the final product. Participants learn about the importance of agriculture in their lives by having direct experience with every part of the food system.

The purpose of these programs is to target not only short-term objectives of behavior change like trying new foods and increasing physical activity, but also to facilitate more enduring changes in behavior and attitude. The long-term goal is to promote healthy life style choices and build strong communities.

The FIT for Kids after school and summer programs consist of lessons that involve youth participants in six components of the food system – production, processing, distribution, acquisition, consumption and waste. Youth learn leadership, communication and business skills. They engage in physical activity as they work side-by-side in the garden. They engage their community at “Taste-a- thon” events where they demonstrate different recipes using fresh produce they have grown and harvested. Youth become advocates for access to healthful food and discuss their understanding and concerns with city and parish policymakers.

One highlight of the FIT for Kids program is Veggie of the Month, featuring seasonal produce. The lessons take participants from seed to plate, teaching essential gardening skills such as planting and garden care, how to recognize when the vegetables are ready for harvesting, how to harvest them, and how to prepare them in a healthy and nutritious manner. At the end of the lesson, participants are given seeds and planting instructions for the vegetables to take home, encouraging further family involvement. Veggie of the Month is versatile and can be delivered in a variety of settings and to a wide range of audiences. Area agents have delivered these lessons at schools, churches, community centers, gardens and health clinics to people of all ages.

Four vegetables featured in the Veggie of the Month program are cool-season crops – broccoli, carrots, sugar snap peas and Swiss chard. Most of the recipes received high marks from participants, with many reporting that they prepared the dish for their families at home. Combined evaluation results from programs delivered in Webster and Bienville parishes indicated that 53 percent of participants enjoyed the taste of the sugar snap pea recipe, 77 percent enjoyed the broccoli, and 89 percent liked the carrot recipe. However, the Swiss chard recipe was the favorite with 95 percent of participants reporting positive taste test results. In Bienville Parish 77 percent of participating 4-H families reported having planted the vegetable seeds they received.

The success of FIT for Kids is due to numerous collaborations, including a long-standing partnership with the City of Shreveport. Louisiana Master Gardeners and community gardeners provide volunteer support for garden education. Local chefs contribute their knowledge and support, and volunteers from the LSU Health Schools of Medicine and Allied Health provide health screenings.

Evaluation results from the FIT for Kids programs indicated most participants increased their knowledge of a healthful diet, tried new foods, ate more vegetables and learned gardening skills. As one volunteer, a retired assistant principal, commented, “The students actually enjoyed preparing and eating the vegetables!”

Grace Peterson is an area nutrition agent in the Northwest Louisiana Region, based in Bossier City. Her co-authors are Joan Almond, Diane Uzzle and Cathy Judd, also nutrition agents in the Northwest Region, and Gwen Fontenot, a family and consumer science and 4-H agent in Natchitoches Parish.

This article was published in the summer 2014 issue of Louisiana Agriculture Magazine.

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