Dec. 23, 2013

Extension’s school garden project grows success

students harvest lettuce
Caroline Kiang
Students at Riverhead Charter School on Long Island harvest lettuce, June 2013.

It has been a busy two years for 15 New York elementary schools participating in the “Healthy Gardens, Healthy Youth” People’s Garden project. Working closely with Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) staff members in six counties, the schools took part in a research study to investigate the impact of school gardens on students’ nutrition, health and learning.

The pilot project, funded in 2011 by the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, is an extension partnership in four states that reached 2,500 elementary students across the nation to create vegetable and fruit gardens in 50 low-income schools.

Gretchen Ferenz and Caroline Tse of Cornell University Cooperative Extension-New York City co-led the project with Washington State University Extension. Nancy Wells, associate professor of design and environmental analysis, led the Cornell research team’s randomized study. Half of the schools were assigned a garden and educational resources during the project’s first year, while the other half served as control schools and started their gardens after the research was completed.

“Intervention” schools were provided with an educational toolkit for classroom and garden-based learning for second through sixth grades, starting in 2012. Videos guided teachers through lessons, which ranged from planning a garden, measuring plant growth and photosynthesis to linking nutrition with healthy eating and composting.

Data collected from each school over the two years measured eating preferences, physical movement, science and nutrition knowledge and at-home activities.

With the completion of the research study in June, control schools were provided with supplies to build gardens and access to the educational toolkit while receiving technical assistance from CCE educators and master gardeners.

Cornell Cooperative Extension in Wayne County is also leading a New York State Department of Health program, “Creating Healthy Places to Live, Work and Play,” and is linking the two projects’ shared goals. Said Mary Lee Bourbeau, nutrition team coordinator at CCE Wayne County, “The People’s Garden project gave us an opportunity to learn and experience research methodologies firsthand and expand our work with a local school.”

In Rockland and Schenectady counties, retiree volunteers received training and conducted research and garden-based learning through the Retirees in Service to the Environment (RISE) Program. The research was funded by federal Hatch funds and is part of a larger study by Cornell’s Institute for Translational Research on Aging, examining the impact of environmental service on retirees.

RISE volunteer Ellen Spergel and her husband, Ron, created a garden-based learning program at Grandview Elementary in Monsey, N.Y. Close to 200 students have learned about vegetable gardening and nature through hands-on activities and use of the project’s educational resources. “We have hit upon a wonderful model to continue the work with Grandview children in the garden – in cold weather, in the classroom – to continue the involvement with nature,” Spergel said.

Other counties had similar success stories, and extension educators will continue to provide technical assistance at the schools.

“Our extension partners have done a phenomenal job in stewarding this project at the local level. … It was often demanding and detailed work, but each team demonstrated their creative abilities to get the job done and found ways to work effectively with each school,” said Ferenz.