American Society For Nutrition

School Gardens: Helping or Hurting?

School Gardens: Helping or Hurting?

Excellence in Nutrition Research and Practice
Posted on 03/05/2010 at 07:46:13 PM by Student Blogger
Proof is Rooted in Statistics:  A Need for Empirical Research on the Efficacy of School Gardens Programs

By: Caitlin L.

The implementation of school gardens and garden based curriculum for grade school and high school children has become more popular in recent years.  With programs such as Edible Schoolyard, Farm to School, and the thousands of school gardens cropping up in cities nationwide, the use of gardens to promote a deeper understanding of where our food comes from, as well as a hands-on lab for science, math, and social learning is no longer a radical idea.  As a result, the recent article written by Caitlin Flanagan in the Atlantic entitled “Cultivating Failure: How school gardens are cheating our most vulnerable students” has promoted quite a stir in the school garden proponent world.

Flannigan believes that school garden programs are based on an ideology constructed by the middle class that does a disservice to students by taking away from classroom hours and “hijack(ing) the curricula of so many schools”.   She dismisses the idea that these gardens may expose children to the benefits of fresh fruits and vegetables and scoffs at the notion that students may live in an area where accessibility of fresh produce is limited.  According to Flanagan there is virtually no evidence that any of these programs actually produce the outcomes they claim to address. 

To a nutrition professional, it seems of obvious importance to expose children to fresh fruits and vegetables early and often, especially since we live in an age where childhood obesity is thriving and the CDC predicts that 1 in every 3 children born in the year 2000 will develop type 2 diabetes in their lifetime if trends continue.  Students in these programs not only grow the produce, experience what something tastes like fresh out of the dirt, but also develop an appreciation for the work that goes into the food that ends up on their plates.  Additionally, curriculum is developed around the gardens including math lessons on recipe conversions, biology and ecology lessons, and working in a team environment to develop a product to be proud of. 

For those who deeply believe in the potential behind garden based programs, it is easy to feel defensive after reading this article.  But perhaps we should thank the Atlantic for publishing it and bringing our attention to the fact that we need to produce more viable research.  While there have been several studies on school based gardens and nutrition outcomes, a recent review of the evidence published in the American Dietetic Association found that although signs point to the potential  for school based gardens to increase intake of fresh produce as well as increase the willingness of children to taste new fruits and vegetables, peer-reviewed, empirical research is lacking. 

As  Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk  said,  “People deal too much with the negative, with what is wrong...Why not try and see positive things, to just touch those things and make them bloom?”  So thank you Ms. Flanagan for sending us a call to arms to work together and make our positive thoughts bloom.  For those of us who have stood in front of a child tasting a cherry tomato pulled off the vine there is an understanding that we are contributing something great to their development.  As one local garden coordinator that I spoke with said, “Children eat what they grow”.  However, in the lifespan of the development of a body of evidence, school based garden programs are newborns.  We need the proof for the critics.  To those of us who are trained as researchers, who know how to evaluate, implement, and correctly assess the outcomes, and who also believe strongly in the ability of hands-on garden based education, it's time to produce those significant results.

SOURCE: Robinson-O'Brien, R, Story, M, & Heim, S. (2009). Impact of garden-based youth nutrition intervention programs: a review.. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 109(2), 273-280.

Flanagan, C. (2010, January/February). Cultivating failure: how school gardens are cheating our most vulnerable students. The Atlantic, Retrieved from

Posted Mar 09, 2010 3:37 PM by Robert

What do you think about using garden time for PE classes? Do the school gardens take time away from exercise? If schools have to cancel gym because of budget, it's hard to see how they can pursue a school garden.

Posted Mar 10, 2010 3:37 PM by Emily

What a great perspective Caitlin. My first thoughts on this were along the lines of outrage, incredulity, etc. And I do agree that more research needs to be done to satisfy and justify school gardens. But at the same time, I don't think that you can always measure the intangible benefits of engaging children in something like school gardening. Personal growth is hard to define statistically. Some values taught through the satisfaction of hard work and reaping the subsequent rewards just can’t be measured.

To the commenter above. I doubt school gardens (maybe 1-3 hrs/wk) take away from PE programs. Our class of dietetic interns teaches lessons once a month in the schools, and the kids are definitely more likely to try vegetables they have grown themselves.

Great post! Thanks for bringing it to my attention...I'll be posting a rebuttal to the article on my blog as well.

Posted Mar 12, 2010 12:35 PM by Stephen

The article was valuable in kickstarting multiple discussion lines about school gardens, academic achievement, nutrition, childhood obesity, minority participation but rested on several assumptions that are dubious, as do many of the dissents. As a gardening coordinator at a retirement community we host classes and individual school kids as volunteers and I've visited one nearby school with extensive gardening programs. As much as I'd like it to be so, not all kids or adults are attracted to growing, caring for and harvesting plants, even those who are often have limited knowledge of how to gain gratifying results. Same holds for teachers and the success of class gardens depends on that highly variable factor. So any research must take individual differences of students and teachers-if they are leading the garden time, into account. A school garden may be just the experience some kids need to be excited about school and learning academically, exercising and eating more nutritiously. Sports, music, art and other electives=many being cut from funding now, are effective at reaching other students. The assumption that academic achievement will translate into escape from low income=physical labor careers in the future, probably is false for many students, who may gain more economic benefits from learnign trades that can't be outsourced. Growing food and flowers in a garden is not farming. Even the children of immigrant farmworkers may not have a clue about gardening the huge variety of food and ornamental plants available, although they might find they love it, as opposed to industrial farming activities.

I personally like the idea of gardens in school, it teaches a bunch of really cool stuff. They will better understand where food comes from and what real food looks like, not the stuff they find in the fast food joints. Also, I like the point in the post above here stating they might find they love gardening, which makes for a healthier population overall.

I really like the idea of school gardens, for many of the reasons outlined in the article. The learning possibility is tremendous - teaching about nutrition, where our food comes from, how pesticides/herbicides affect our body, etc. I'm not sure about the practical side, as noted by a previous poster, but agree with the quote from Thich Nhat Hanh. It's worth a try.

Agreed that the notion of a gardening program is a step in the right direction. But what about the soft drink and snack machine in the cafeteria? The exposure to quick, easy, cheap and unhealthy food in our society is a giant part of the problem.

How on earth can teaching children how to grow their own food hurt anything? I belong to a community garden and I'm teaching children about hydroponics so they can grow plants all year round. Great blog!

As well as the benefits of seeing plants grow, and getting children to understand where food comes from, there is surely also a benefit in getting children out of the class room for a while.

In the school garden they will get fresh air, a little exercise, and a chance to connect with the natural world. This can only help overall performance and behaviour in school.

Brooke Durbin is an FCC Mission Partner who teaches high school at Sonlight ... Did you know there was a garden growing on the old Edgewood driving range? ... Kids helping harvest the next batch of veggies at the Common ...

When I was little, I wasn't a big fan of eating fish. Then, I caught one. I couldn't wait to eat what I caught, much the way children can't wait to eat what they grow. As an adult, I haven't always been good about eating fruits and vegetables. Once I started gardening, I began enjoying the fruits of my labor (no pun intended). I guess adults and kids aren't so different. Furthermore, when I started gardening, one of the things I really enjoyed was everything I was learning. For example, understanding pH balance, measuring total dissolved solids in my nutrient solution, etc. I don't know how anybody can argue against these programs. When I was a kid, if I had a choice between P.E. and gardening, I would've chosen gardening. It's great for your physical and mental health.

Just left comment on another post... and again... really enjoyed this one as well. As a coach to chiropractors, teaching them about nutrition, I think what you're doing is outstanding.

Farming is one of the oldest basic occupations. Youth today see everything that you can buy in the store as obvious. So it is important to give them the knowledge and show them that not everything is easy to get. One have to invest in order to get results.

Great post! I don't agree with everything, but it's just my revolutionary ideal...