Involve children in gardening

The use of family-focused gardening in the fight against childhood obesity may become a growing trend with a near $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to a Texas higher education partnership.

The project, “Texas Grow! Eat! Go!,” will involve horticulturists, nutritionists, physical activity experts and public health leaders from the Texas AgriLife Extension Service, Texas A&M Health Science Center (TAMHSC) School of Rural Public Health, Texas A&M University, and the University of Texas Health Science Center.

Two professors from TAMHSC-School of Rural Public Health, Regents Professor Marcia Ory, Ph.D., M.P.H. and Chuck Huber, Ph.D., assistant professor, along with staff will be working on the evaluation of the project.

“This study addresses two important public health risk factors experienced by many children in our communities: lack of physical activity and poor eating habits,” states Dr. Ory. “Bringing together many traditional and nontraditional public health partners, we will test how a new comprehensive school-family-community approach can help to combat the rising obesity epidemic among Texas children.”

“We looked at an overall strategy that could engage school leaders, volunteers and local AgriLife Extension educators,” said Dr. Judy Warren, AgriLife Extension special initiatives coordinator and principal investigator.  “We are focused on the school community, getting the kids involved at school, and engaging the whole family in being healthy through food choices and being more active together.”

“We’re bringing together a multi-disciplinary team capable of evaluating the approach to determine whether the programs change levels of child obesity, are cost-effective and are sustainable,” also added Dr. Warren.

This project’s focus on families, schools and environmental changes is a natural extension of the ongoing work related to the prevention and control of childhood obesity at The University of Texas School of Public Health and the Michael and Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living as well as the TAMHSC-School of Rural Public Health, according to Alexandra Evans, Ph.D., associate professor at the UT School of Public Health and co-principal investigator.

“This study will build on our current knowledge about effective childhood obesity interventions and will hopefully provide evidence-based strategies for future projects. The center’s team will lead all research activities for this project,” Dr. Evans said.

A leading factor in the effort is that AgriLife Extension’s Junior Master Gardener program, which has demonstrated that children who grow vegetables are more likely to taste and like them, Dr. Warren noted.

“It isn’t so much about nutrition facts (in combating obesity) as it is to get kids to taste nutritious foods and enjoy them,” Dr. Warren said. “Incorporating experiential learning can be effective in improving health-related behaviors and academic learning in science, as previous research on Junior Master Gardeners has shown. We are also using Walk Across Texas, a fun, physical activity program available for schools.”

The project will continue through 2016.

— Rae Lynn Mitchell