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TX Sprouts school garden program improves childhood health

July 27, 2020 3 min. read
by Katie Nikah

After five years of TX sprouts, UT Austin researchers find elementary-aged kids benefit from nutrition education and gardening during the school day.

Photo courtesy EdEN Lab at UT

Texas children and families experience obesity at a higher rate than the rest of the US, putting our population on the fast track for diet-related diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Low daily consumption and availability of fruits and vegetables is a root cause of this sobering trajectory. Spurred by the possibility of addressing poor produce intake, UT researchers developed a novel program bringing science to schools through gardening. They surprised themselves by the extraordinary outcomes of the intervention.

Bringing evidence-based school garden programs to Austin schools

TX Sprouts, a research project led by Dr. Jaimie Davis and funded by the National Institutes of Health, was a randomized controlled school garden intervention to determine the effectiveness of education in nutrition, cooking, and gardening. 

Sixteen Austin-area elementary schools were randomly assigned to either a 1-year garden-based intervention or a control group. The intervention schools received a fully-funded garden designed and built at their schools (~$5K each); weekly gardening, nutrition, and cooking classes taught during school hours to all 3rd-5th grade students (taught by a garden and nutrition educator); monthly gardening, cooking, and nutrition parent classes; and assistance to form and support a Garden Committee at each school, consisting of interested teachers, parents, children, and staff.

The TX Sprouts team measured the effects of the program on:

  • childhood obesity markers
  • dietary intake
  • diet-related behaviors
  • physical activity levels
  • school performance

From 2015-2020, TX Sprouts offered hands-on nutrition, gardening, and cooking education to over 3000 elementary school children.

A powerful trio: nutrition, gardening, and cooking

The outcome? Through this evidence-based program, our researchers succeeded in increasing vegetable intake, improving glucose control, and subsequently decreasing the risk of diabetes for Austin area schoolchildren. 

The researchers demonstrated that building a strong, sustainable support system within the school was key to a thriving outdoor gardening education program. They also discovered that when exposed to growing food and involved in preparing that food into nutritious recipes, children are more likely to accept and desire fruits and vegetables. And, they discovered that teachers benefited from the support they received to creatively apply their curriculum in the new garden setting. 

Astonishingly, students who participated in the program also demonstrated improved academic performance compared to non-participating peers. They reported that more time outside actually improved their ability to spend time on task and to learn new concepts.

For more information on program outcomes, visit the TX Sprouts results page.

SproUTing Teachers and UT Outdoor Intern Program

Following up on the momentum TX Sprouts created, the TX Sprouts team launched two partner programs: SproUTing Teachers and UT Outdoor Intern Program. These programs offer teacher training and undergraduate outreach to schools with gardens to facilitate integrating the school garden program with the existing classroom curriculum. So far, these programs have increased teacher confidence and desire for outdoor learning. 

What we’ve learned from TX Sprouts is transforming how we educate our kids about gardening, cooking, and nutrition. TX Sprouts’ evidence-based school gardening and nutrition education program boosts our children’s health and will continue to expand in impact as the partner programs continue to grow. 

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