School-based Gardening and Food Programs May Support Healthier Food Attitudes Later in Life

January 8, 2024

Children working in a garden

Credit: FRESHFARM Foodprints/KZT Photography

WASHINGTON (Jan. 8, 2024) — A new study suggests that kids who learn to grow, harvest and prepare food in elementary school show lasting healthy food attitudes and behaviors years later.

Researchers at the George Washington University published the study in the January issue of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. It is one of the first to show that participation in a hands-on food education program in elementary school may lead to sustained changes in dietary behavior later in life.

“Kids who grow vegetables in a school garden and learn how to prepare meals seem to show a lasting desire for fresh, healthy food as young adults,” said lead author Christine St. Pierre, a PhD candidate and researcher at the GW Milken Institute School of Public Health. “The hope is that such programs could help teens and young adults make better food choices as they grow older.”

The GW research team conducted focus groups to ask current elementary students and those who had aged out of such programs about their program experiences, dietary habits and attitudes. They found that both current and former participants in the FRESHFARM FoodPrints  program commonly said the program helped them enjoy fresh food and build fresh food preparation skills.

Older alumni of the program said they were more open to trying new foods and had more confidence in their ability to make informed food choices.

The researchers hope such programs can be one strategy to improve diet quality in young adults. According to the Dietary Guidelines, dietary intake of young adults falls short of the recommendations for good health. In addition, the CDC says nearly 42% of adults aged 20 and older have obesity and are at risk for a raft of serious health problems.

Programs that encourage healthy food habits like eating more fruits and vegetables can lead to better health outcomes throughout the life course, St. Pierre said.

St. Pierre cautions that participants in the focus groups may be motivated to emphasize positive experiences and that may bias the results. She says this study’s findings must be verified by additional research.

The study, “Participant Perspectives on the Impact of a School-Based, Experiential Food Education Program Across Childhood, Adolescence and Young Adulthood,” was published in the January issue of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior by St. Pierre, April Sokalsky and senior author Jennifer Sacheck, who is the Chair of the Department of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences at the GW Milken Institute School of Public Health. The research was funded by FRESHFARM as part of their program evaluation efforts.

St. Pierre has worked as an evaluation consultant for FRESHFARM separately from this research. The FRESHFARM FoodPrints program embeds comprehensive food education in public elementary schools with the goal of improving health and academic outcomes for children and families. The authors affirm FRESHFARM had no role in the design of the study, data analysis or approval of the manuscript.