SEATTLE – WSU Extension is the lead institution on a new “Healthy Gardens, Healthy Youth” project funded by a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service.
Aimed at addressing childhood obesity and improving nutrition, the pilot project spans four states, will serve an estimated 2,800 students at 70 elementary schools, and will engage low-income students in the physical activity involved in growing food, learning life skills and teaching science and math.
“School gardens hold great promise for educating our kids about food production and nutrition,” said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack Thursday when announcing the grant. “Learning where food comes from and what fresh food tastes like, and the pride of growing and serving your own fruits and vegetables, are life-changing experiences.”
“Engaging kids in our efforts to end childhood hunger and curb childhood obesity is critical if we are going to succeed,” he said.
“Across the nation, communities are facing the interrelated problems of obesity and chronic diseases associated with poor nutrition and lack of physical activity,” said Brad Gaolach, the project’s lead scientist and director of Pierce County and King County Extension. “These problems are often linked to poverty, food insecurity, lack of access to or utilization of open or green spaces, and limited understanding of the role of nutrition and physical activity in overall health.”
Validates land-grant system
King County is a nationally recognized nexus of efforts to improve nutrition and the local food system and to confront health problems through gardening and other outdoor activities.
“We’ve been working in this arena for at least 10 years,” said Gaolach. “To me, the exciting thing is that this grant validates the value of the land-grant university system. We are, I think, the only organization that has programs in gardening, youth development and nutrition, is capable of conducting the outcome assessment research, and is capable, through our national system, of disseminating and implementing this project on a national scale.”
The project will utilize WSU Extension educators’ expertise in 4-H, gardening and nutrition programs. Additionally, extension researchers in all four states will assess both the process of implementing gardens in low-income schools and the nutritional outcomes of the project.
Pilot for the country
The Cooperative Extension Services of Iowa State University, Cornell University, and the University of Arkansas are collaborating with WSU Extension on the project.
The four states represent the ethnic, climatic and geographic diversity of the United States. Within each state, low-income schools in both rural and urban settings were asked to partner with the collaborating universities.
“This way, we’ll be able to test what grows best where and when in each of these climatic zones,” Gaolach said. “This gives us a true representation of the U.S., which is perfect for a program we’re piloting for the entire country.”
The schools selected to participate come from urban, suburban and rural communities and have at least 50 percent of their students qualified to receive free or reduced-price school meals. The pilot program is authorized under the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act.
The announcement comes as First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative celebrates April as National Gardening Month.

WSU a national leader

“This program is innovative and involves key land-grant universities that bring the best from different regions of the country and the audiences that each state serves,” said Linda Kirk Fox, associate dean of WSU Extension. “This reflects strong collaboration and, ultimately, a good solution to improve people’s health.”
“Washington State University is a leader when it comes to gardening and garden-based learning, and this important pilot program will make a significant contribution to the development of national models,” said Kevin Concannon, USDA Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services. “This program moves us toward our goal of improving the health and nutrition of our kids and communities, and instilling healthy eating habits that can last a lifetime.”
Teaching science and math too
“Gardening is an opportunity to build community plus teach science and math skills,” said Gaolach. “Thus the involvement of 4-H, which has considerable curricular experience in teaching kids science, technology, engineering and math skills, as well as life skills, in outdoor and other activity contexts.”
He said one example of a way to engage youth in math through gardening might be in comparing nutrient application rates, such as the amount of compost applied, with plant growth. Likewise, once the food is grown, cooking recipes can be used to teach fractions.
“This also excites kids about gardening, food and wholesome nutrition. And the best way to improve nutrition in families is to influence the behavior of parents through their children. If kids say, ‘Let’s eat more fresh vegetables,’ the parents are likely to listen.”
Twelve elementary schools in Washington are participating in the project:
•Dick Scobee Elementary School in Auburn
•Cedar Valley Elementary School in Covington
•Highlands Elementary School in Renton
•Ritzville Grade School in Ritzville
•Mary Purcell Elementary School in Sedro-Wooley
•Daffodil Valley Elementary School in Sumner
•Fern Hill Elementary School in Tacoma
•Franklin Elementary School in Tacoma
•Mary Lyon Elementary School in Tacoma
•Fruit Valley Elementary School – Community Center in Vancouver
•Martin Luther King Elementary School in Vancouver
•Truman Elementary School in Vancouver