Thesis: Nutrition & Garden Education Program 1
A Nutrition and Garden Education Program to Increase Fresh Fruit and Vegetable
Consumption in Middle School Students
Jill Marie Parsh
A Master’s Thesis Presented to the
Master’s Program at Hawthorn University
in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements
for the Degree of Master of Science in
Health & Nutrition Education
Thesis: Nutrition & Garden Education Program 2
Table of Contents
The Problem of Obesity.......................................................................................................................... 4
Associated Risks of Obesity ................................................................................................................... 6
Poor Nutrition and Fast Food: the Culture of Obesity............................................................................. 6
Literature Review ......................................................................................................................... 10
Evaluation of Research Studies............................................................................................................. 11
Methodology & Results................................................................................................................ 21
Results of Previous Studies................................................................................................................... 21
Methodology for Building a Successful Nutrition Curriculum ............................................................. 22
Conclusion .................................................................................................................................... 25
Thesis: Nutrition & Garden Education Program 3
This study is a contribution to the study of childhood obesity in America, and seeks to provide
solutions for improving overall education and health of America’s youth through the design of a
nutrition and gardening program. The paper discusses associated concerns related to obesity,
including physical and psychological health problems, the financial burden upon the healthcare
system, and the nationwide trend of poor eating habits. A literature review of studies on the
impact of nutrition and garden curricula in general education is presented as a possible solution
to the problem of obesity. The main objective of the thesis is to determine the essential aspects of
an effective nutrition and garden education program that would promote the increased
consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables in middle school students. The paper concludes that
for a program to be successful, it must include both weekly nutrition education and experiential
gardening components over a period of at least one year and incorporate parental involvement.
As such, this thesis demonstrates that the creation of a nutrition and gardening program can be
utilized as an effective antidote to the rampant problem of obesity in the United States.
Thesis: Nutrition & Garden Education Program 4
The impetus for this thesis is the problem of poor eating habits in children, which leads to
multiple health concerns, including obesity, diabetes, and other psycho-social impediments. As
such, the main focus is the need for nutrition and garden education in schools in order to improve
childhood eating habits. After explaining the significant consequences of poor eating habits, this
thesis explores various studies of educational nutrition and garden programs in schools and their
corresponding efficacy for transforming children’s attitudes and behaviors towards eating a
healthier diet consisting of more fresh fruits and vegetables. The central assertion, therefore, is
that the implementation of a dynamic nutrition curriculum in schools, including a hands-on
garden component, has a positive impact on children’s eating habits.
The Problem of Obesity
In order to understand the importance of nutrition education and healthy eating in
general, it is instructive to describe the problems resulting from an overall poor and unhealthy
American diet. This is evidenced, foremost, by the severe and escalating problem of obesity.
Obesity rates among children in the United States more than tripled between 1976 and 2008.
According to the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity (2010), we are facing a national
health crisis. The report states that one in three children (31.7%) age 2-19 are either overweight
or obese. Additionally, one third of all children born in the year 2000 are expected to develop
diabetes during their lifetime, and, for the first time in history, the current generation may have a
shorter lifespan than their parents. The 2010 rate of obesity is cause for alarm as it indicates that
obesity has nearly doubled since 2007-2008, at which time the National Health and Nutrition
Thesis: Nutrition & Garden Education Program 5
Examination Survey (NHANES) results demonstrated that an estimated 16.9% of children and
adolescents age 2–19 years were obese.
Between 1976–1980 and 2007–2008, the obesity rate of preschool children age 2–5
doubled, from 5 percent to 10.4 percent, and in children age 6-11 obesity tripled, from 6.5
percent to 19.6 percent (Ogden & Carroll, 2010). During this same period, the rate of obesity in
adolescents age 12–19 more than tripled, from 5 percent to 18.1 percent. According to the age
group breakdown, obesity rates in the United States are increasing at higher rates as children get
older. Further, socioeconomic factors also impact childhood obesity rates, which are higher
among minority and low-income children as compared to national averages, and are highest for
African-American children (Anderson & Butcher, 2006).
The White House Task Force (2010) is not using hyperbole when it claims that we are
facing a national health crisis. It outlines several ramifications for childhood obesity, such as a
higher risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol levels, and insulin
resistance. In a study to determine the risk of heart disease in obese children, Freedman (2007)
concluded that approximately 70 percent of obese children had high levels of at least one key
factor for heart disease, and approximately 30 percent had high levels of at least two factors.
Another major health concern for obese children is type-two diabetes, once called adult onset
diabetes. Recent data indicate that type-two diabetes is now affecting children far earlier than
historical averages, and, in some populations, type-two diabetes is now the dominant form of
diabetes in children and adolescents (Deckelbaum & Williams, 2001). Further, the American
Journal of Epidemiology published a study indicating that asthma is another health issue that
obese children deal with more than non-obese children (Gilliland, 2003).
Thesis: Nutrition & Garden Education Program 6
Associated Risks of Obesity
In addition to threatening physical health conditions, obese children, especially girls, also
face debilitating psychological problems such as low self-esteem and troublesome behavioral
problems (Reilly, 2003). Sadly, it is documented that an obese child is more likely than a normal
weight child to become an obese adult (Anderson & Butcher, 2006). Children should not have to
deal with these health issues at such a young age, or ever in their lives. The diseases mentioned
above are lifestyle diseases and are preventable through lifestyle changes.
Beyond both physical and psychological health problems, there are additional associated
societal concerns regarding those who suffer from obesity. In 2008, it was estimated that the
annual medical burden related to obesity in the United States came to $147 billion per year
(Finkelstein, 2009). Obesity-related medical costs occur not only in adult populations, but in
children as well. The annual direct costs of childhood obesity in the U.S. are estimated at about
$14.3 billion (Hammond & Levine, 2010). However, obesity in adults often begins in childhood;
therefore, addressing obesity early on in a child’s life is a preventative action that behooves the
government and taxpayers alike. Another associated area that is effected by childhood obesity is
our military. According to the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity (2010), more than
a quarter of all Americans ages 17-24 are unqualified for military service because they are too
Poor Nutrition and Fast Food: the Culture of Obesity
Nutrition guidelines state that eating a minimum of five fruits and vegetables per day
contributes to a healthier diet and may help prevent cancer and heart disease (American Cancer
Society, 2004; American Heart Association, 2004; USDA, 2004; Poston, Shoemaker, &
Thesis: Nutrition & Garden Education Program 7
Dzewaltowski, 2005). Unfortunately, Americans are not eating the minimum USDA
recommendations for fruit and vegetables. Between 1989 and 1991, the fruit and vegetable
intake for children ages 2-19 was just 1.3 to 2.6 servings/day, respectively; during any given
consecutive three day period, only 26 percent of children and adolescents met the food guide
pyramid recommendations for fruits and roughly 36 percent met the recommendations for
vegetables (U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1989-1991). In a similar study, Krebs-Smith, Cook,
Subar, Cleveland, Friday and Kahle (1996) reported that the total daily fruit and vegetable intake
for children age 6-11 is an average of 3.4 servings for boys and 3.5 servings for girls. Also, only
one in five children consumed five or more servings of fruits and vegetables per day, and nearly
one fourth of all vegetables consumed were reported as french fries (Krebs-Smith et al., 1996;
Poston et al., 2005).
Today children are consuming more processed food, fast food, junk food, and soda than
ever before. From 1965 to 1996, a considerable shift in the adolescent diet occurred, in which,
suprisingly, both the total energy (calorie) intake and the proportion of energy from total fat and
protein decreased (Cavadinia, Siega-Riz, & Popkin, 2000). Concurrent increases occurred in the
consumption of carbohydrates, including higher fat potatoes and mixed dishes such as pizza and
macaroni and cheese. This decrease in total energy was accompanied by an increase in
consumption of soft drinks and non-citrus juices, and a decrease in raw fruit consumption. An
increase in high-fat vegetable consumption, such as potatoes, led to a decrease in consumption of
dark green and orange vegetables. Overall, the total number of servings for fruits and vegetables
is still below the USDA recommended five per day (Cavadinia et al. 2000).
Thesis: Nutrition & Garden Education Program 8
As a certified health coach, my first recommendation to my clients is to eat more
vegetables because they are packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber, low in
calories, easy to prepare, and affordable. In fact, consuming the recommended daily servings of
fruits and vegetables may help prevent obesity (Minnesota Department of Health, 2008). In an
effort to halt the rising rate of obesity among children, and eventually reverse it, the intent of this
research project is to increase children’s knowledge of healthy eating habits and, most
importantly, to increase the amount of fruits and vegetables school children consume.
The causes of childhood obesity are multi-faceted; therefore, the solution will need to
include many dimensions. The causes of childhood obesity and obesity in general are woven into
the fabric of today’s culture, wherein eating at McDonald’s or other fast food restaurants is
commonplace. According to Steven Gortmaker, in an article in Harvard Magazine,(2004) 30
percent of American children aged 4 to 19 eat fast food and older and wealthier children eat even
more. Overall, 7 percent of the U.S. population visits McDonald’s every day, and 20 to 25
percent eat at a fast-food restaurant (Lambert, 2004). This is a cultural norm that will need to
change in order to effectively address childhood obesity.
Today, kids don’t walk to school or even play much outside; instead, they spend hours on
computers doing homework, communicating with friends, and playing games. To complicate
matters, due to new testing standards and budget cuts, many schools have reduced or eliminated
gym time, creating a scenario that is much different from 30 years ago, when kids walked to
school, participated in daily physical education, rode bikes and skate boards, and regularly
enjoyed other outdoor activities. The general physical malaise of our modern culture – when
added to our bad eating habits – only compounds the problem of childhood obesity.
Thesis: Nutrition & Garden Education Program 9
The Institute of Medicine of the National Academies (2005) describes the significance of
childhood obesity in the book Preventing Childhood Obesity, Health in the Balance:
Childhood obesity is complex because it has biological, behavioral, social,
economic, environmental, and cultural causes, which collectively have created
over decades an adverse environment for maintaining a healthy weight. The result
is that obesity from unhealthy eating and inactivity has rapidly become the social
norm in many communities across America.
It will take many years, and involve many levels of participation from the government, food
industry, healthcare industry, communities, schools, homes, and individuals, to effectively
address and reverse the trend of childhood obesity. The research focus of this thesis is on one of
many different possible changes in the school environment: implementing school gardens in
conjunction with nutrition education in an effort to increase the consumption of fresh vegetables
and fruits in school children.
Thesis: Nutrition & Garden Education Program 10
The first step in this thesis project was to review the effectiveness of similar programs
that were previously implemented. Therefore, the literature review comprises a survey of articles
regarding research studies in schools with gardens and a nutrition education component. Further,
most of these studies involved research exploring the efficacy of such programs to increase fresh
fruit and vegetable consumption for the students involved. All of the studies included were
performed in the United States.
The first study was conducted by Lineberger and Zajicek at Texas A&M University
(Lineberger & Zajicek, 2000), and two of the studies were published in 2009 (Ratcliffe, 2009;
Parmer, Salisbury-Glennon, Shannon & Struempler, 2009). Three of the studies were performed
in Northern California (Morris, Neustadter, & Zidenberg-Cherr, 2001; Morris & Zidenberg-
Cherr, 2002; Ratcliffe, 2011), two in Kansas (O'Brien & Shoemaker, 2006; Poston et al., 2005),
and one in each of the following states: Texas (Lineberger, 2000), Oklahoma (Hermann, 2006),
Idaho (McAleese & Rankin, 2007) and Minnesota (Heim, Stang, & Ireland, 2009). One study
specified the location as South-east United States (Parmer et al., 2009). Three of the studies were
performed in after-school programs (Poston et al., 2005; O'Brien & Shoemaker, 2006; Hermann,
2006), one was performed during a Summer Camp at the Boys & Girls Club (Heim et al., 2009),
and the remaining six studies took place in schools during the school day. The grade level of the
students involved in the studies ranged from kindergarten through eighth grade. A summary of
each study follows. Table 1 is included as a quick guide to each study.
Thesis: Nutrition & Garden Education Program 11
Evaluation of Research Studies
Poston et al. (2005), performed their study in an after-school Boys & Girls club. The
participants recruited were all in grades 3-5. Although the lessons and tests involved in the study
were tailored for the fourth grade level, there were not enough fourth grade participants, making
it necessary to recruit both third and fifth graders. The study was conducted in two semesters:
summer and fall. In the summer semester there were 18 total particpants, and in the fall semester
there were 11 participants. The researchers measured nutrition knowledge, fruit and vegetable
preference, and gardening self-efficacy. Both baseline and end-program testing were performed.
This study did not test for an increase in consumption of fruits and vegetables, but was enacted to
determine behavior change using social cognitive theory.
According to Poston et al. (2005), social cognitive theory postulates that behavior change
is mediated by childrens’ expectations of confidence to perform the behavior, and childrens’
expectations for the outcomes they will receive from that behavior. In other words, if children
have better nutrition and garden knowledge, and self-confidence, it is more likely that they will
change their nutrition behavior and eventually consume more fruits and vegetables. Although the
study reported no significant changes in the participant’s results between the baseline and end-
program tests in any of the measures, there was an increase in nutrition knowledge and gardening
self-efficacy in both the Professor Popcorn (PP) and Junior Master Gardener (JMG) summer
groups, as well as an increase in vegetable preference in the summer JMG participants (Poston et
al., 2005). Due to the fact that the study’s short timeline, limited number of participants ,
potential bias from recruiting students as opposed to random selection,, and high beginning
baseline scores, an increase is positive and should warrant further research.
Thesis: Nutrition & Garden Education Program 12
Morris et al. (2001) performed an in-school study of first graders at two schools: an
intervention school and a control school. Three classrooms at each school, which included a total
of forty-eight and forty-nine students, respectively, participated in the study. The schools were
chosen based on their student population’s similarity in ethnicity and geographical location. The
intervention group participated in lessons from the Team Nutrition Program, which were
integrated into the normal curriculum by the classroom teacher. The lessons started after the pre-
test and were taught throughout the school year. During this time, the participants also planted
and maintained a fall and spring vegetable garden.
The control site had no formal nutrition or garden lessons. Both pre-tests and post-tests
were administered to assess the participant’s knowledge of and preference for fruits and
vegetables. The tests were conducted by a researcher and included one-to-one interviews with
each participant. The first part of the test evaluated the student’s ability to visually identify the
food groups. The second part of the test evaluated the willingness of the student to taste six
vegetables. At the intervention site, both the ability to visually identify the food groups and the
willingness to taste them improved. At the control site, no significant improvements in either
area was made.
Because the control group had a higher pre-test score on the first part of the test,
indicating a greater ability to identify vegetables visually, the researchers stated that the
statistical significance of improvements made by the intervention group in this area were
nullified (Morris et al., 2001). However, it appears that the intervention made the intended
impact in both main areas of student testing in the intervention group, with no changes occurring
in the control group. This indicates a causal relationship between the intervention and the
Thesis: Nutrition & Garden Education Program 13
outcome and, hence, supports the theory that education increases children’s knowledge of
healthy eating habits. According to the researchers (Morris et al., 2001), increases in knowledge
lead to an increase in behaviors. In this case, the theory is that the more children know about
healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables, and the more they are exposed to opportunities to
consume them, the greater the chance that they will adopt the habit of eating them.
O’Brien and Shoemaker (2004) conducted a study at after-school gardening clubs in two
elementary schools in which there were 17 fourth grade participants at the intervention school
and 21 fourth grade participants at the control school. In the process of recruiting participants
into the study, demographic information was evaluated and it was determined that the two
groups were demographically similar. The intervention group participated in 10 weekly lessons
from March to May, 2004. These lessons included a healthy snack, a nutrition lesson, and garden
time. Both a pre-test and a post-test were conducted. The lessons utilized social cognitive theory
and were taught by the researcher with assistance from master gardeners and university students.
The study tested nutrition knowledge using multiple choice and true/false questions, and fruit
and vegetable preference using four fruits and eight commonly considered vegetables. The
participants were asked to rate the foods either as ―like,‖ ―like a little,‖ ―dislike,‖ or ―don’t
know.‖ Fruit and vegetable consumption self-efficacy and gardening self-efficacy were tested
using task specific, self-evaluation questions, with possible responses being: ―sure they could do
the task,‖ ―somewhat sure they could do the task,‖ or ―not sure they could do the task.‖
No significant increase in knowledge, preference, or self-efficacy was found in this study
(O’Brien & Shoemaker, 2004). The researchers postulated that the reason for the lack of
significant increases could be due to two factors that distinguished this study from previous
Thesis: Nutrition & Garden Education Program 14
studies: the relatively low number of participants and the relatively short period of time of the
study. In evaluating the results of this study it is also important to note that the pre-tests and post-
tests were only six weeks apart, and the beginning baseline scores were high. A higher
population of participants would create a greater ability to notice changes made by the
intervention, and a longer period of time for the intervention would increase the potential to learn
new knowledge and eating habits. The authors of this research admitted that not harvesting the
vegetables planted in the garden potentially detrimentally impacted the student’s appreciation for
them, leading to lower test scores.
The study by Morris and Zidenberger-Cherr (2002) included a total of 213 fourth grade
students at three elementary schools. Sixty-one students at the control group school received no
formal nutrition or garden education, seventy-one students at the nutrition lesson only (NL)
school received classroom based nutrition and garden lessons, and eighty-one students at the
nutrition and garden (NG) school received both nutrition and garden lessons in the classroom, as
well as hands-on garden experience. The one-year nutrition education program included a total
of nine lessons taught by the researcher, one lesson every two weeks for seventeen weeks. The
study was designed to assess nutrition knowledge and vegetable preferences. Pre-test and post-
test evaluations, as well as a six-month follow-up using the same tests, were completed.
Nutrition knowledge was assessed using a 30 question multiple choice questionnaire, and
vegetable preference was assessed by presenting each child with a tray of six different
vegetables. During the vegetable preference assessment, each child was invited to taste all of the
vegetables and, for the ones they sampled, asked to rate the vegetables on a dislike-like scale of
1-5, whereby 1 represented the extreme of dislike and 5 represented the extreme of like.
Thesis: Nutrition & Garden Education Program 15
The nutrition knowledge scores at both the six month follow-up and the post-test were
significantly greater than the control group. There were significant increases in the vegetable
preferences for carrots and broccoli between the NL and NG group compared to the control
group. The NG group had a significant increase in preference over the NL and control group for
snow peas and zucchini. At the six month follow-up, the NL group maintained its high
preference for carrots and the NG group for broccoli, snow peas, and zucchini. There was no
significant difference in the willingness to taste vegetables in any of the groups at pre, post, or
follow-up tests. Several factors may have impacted the positive results in this study: the rather
high number of participants, 213 in total, and a parental component that included a newsletter
sent to the home every other week that recapped the children’s lessons and aimed at spurring
family discussions about nutrition.
The study by Hermann et al. (2006) included 43 after school students in kindergarten
through eighth grade at a rural school in Oklahoma. Seventy-two percent of the participants were
Native American, 25 percent white/non-Hispanic, and 3 percent Hispanic. The students
participated in a group instruction one day per week that consisted of gardening, nutrition
education, and food preparation. The students were evaluated with a pre-test and post-test
questionnaire containing two prompts: ―I eat vegetables every day‖ and ―I am physically active
every day.‖ Possible answers were ―yes,‖ ―sometimes,‖ and ―no.‖ At post-test there was an
increase from twenty-one percent to forty-four percent in the ―yes‖ response to the prompt ―I eat
vegetables every day,‖ and an increase from fifty-one to seventy-nine percent to the prompt ―I
am physically active every day.‖ The positive results in this study show that including nutrition
Thesis: Nutrition & Garden Education Program 16
education, gardening, and food preparation activities can have a positive impact on the vegetable
consumption of the participating students.
The study performed by Ratcliffe et al. (2009) included 320 sixth grade students at two
intervention schools and one control school. The demographics of the schools were low-income
with a diverse ethnic population: more than 90 percent of the students were non-white, 35
percent overweight, 64 percent low-income, and 35 percent were English language learners. At
the two intervention schools, the participants received 13 one hour sessions over a four month
period. Each session included 20 minutes of learning and 40 minutes of hands-on experience in
the garden. At the intervention sites, parent and community events were also included. Pre-tests
and post-tests were administered using the Garden Vegetable Frequency Questionaire (GVFQ)
and a taste test. Vegetable consumption was used as a measure and evaluated using a 24-hour
Students in the intervention group showed a significant increase in vegetable knowledge
and preference, as well as an increased preference in a variety of vegetables, not just those grown
in the garden. The garden group inceased the average number of vegetable varieties they
consumed more than once per month; however, consumption of vegetables at home did not
change. Although this study included a parent and community involvement component, which
may have had an impact on the positive results in this study, the researchers need to look at how
to change parental involvement so that an increase in consumption of vegetables at home will
increase. Because the demographics of the population for this study were mainly students of a
low-income and minority socioeconomic status, researchers may need to increase parental
involvement in the classroom so that changes in students can be effective in the context of the
Thesis: Nutrition & Garden Education Program 17
family. In a situation where the school and home environments are disparate, educators may need
to take the extra step to impact parents so that changes occur on a systematic, and thus
Lineberger and Zajicek (1999) conducted a study to determine how nutrition education,
along with school garden activities, would impact fruit and vegetable preferences and
consumption in participating students. One hundred and eleven third through fifth grade students
participated in the study. Five elementary school teachers from different schools incorporated
nutrition and horticulture lessons into their curriculum over a one year period. The students took
a pre-test and post-test questionnaire and completed a 24-hr recall journal. Post-test results in
vegetable preference improved, fruit preference remained the same, and there was no change in
fruit and vegetable consumption. Although the consumption of vegetables did not increase
according to the test results, both vegetable and healthy snack preference increased, in particular
for the participants that had the lowest pre-test scores.
McAleese and Rankin (2007) conducted a study with 122 sixth grade students at three
elementary schools, including a control group and two treatment groups. Each treatment group
participated in a twelve-week nutrition education program, and the second treatment group also
participated in garden-based activities. The results showed that adolescents who participated in
the garden-based nutrition intervention group increased their daily intake servings of fruits and
vegetables more than the students in the two other groups. In fact, the number of servings of
fruits and vegetables more than doubled for the garden-based intervention group, from 1.93 to
4.5 servings per day. Food recall workbooks were used before and after to gather data.
Thesis: Nutrition & Garden Education Program 18
The study showed an increase in vegetable consumption in the students that participated
in the nutrition and hands-on garden activities. This finding supports the theory that involving
children in garden and nurtition curricula in the school can have a positive impact. Further, the
fact that the garden-based intervention group increased consumption of vegetables more than the
classroom nutrition education intervention group indicates that experiential, hands-on learning is
highly valuable in the area of nutrition. Because so much of school education takes place inside a
classroom, connecting nutrition with its source—the earth—via a garden may be an invaluable
aspect of effectively teaching this subject. Therefore, this research is highly instructive on the
kind of nutrition education that is most significant.
Parmer et al. (2009) studied six second grade classes, divided into three treatment groups,
totalling 115 students. Two classes received both nutrition education and gardening, two classes
received only nutrition education, and two classes served as the control group. Treatment was
assigned based on the stated interest of the individual classroom teachers; however, this is a
condition that could easily cause bias in the study. For instance, teachers who were most
interested in nutrition education or gardening would naturally have a pre-determined interest in
ensuring that their students learned the material. Likewise, teachers who had no interest, or
possibly thought the research was not worthy, might be more apt to downplay the importance of
the learning, therefore dissuading students from scoring well on the research tests.
Children in the gardening group received nutrition lessons and gardening lessons in an
alternating biweekly schedule. Children in the nutrition education group received nutrition
education lessons every other week. Children in the control group only participated in the pre-
test and post-test assessments. The study results showed two major changes. First, the control
Thesis: Nutrition & Garden Education Program 19
group ate fewer vegetables at post-test compared to pre-test. Second, the nutrition education and
garden groups ate more vegetables at post-test than at pre-test. Therefore, the experiment
supported the researcher’s hypothesis that increasing knowledge of nutrition and gardening can
positively impact student’s eating habits.
The fact that the teachers were assigned to curricula based on their preferences may also
be instructive for future research. In other words, a teacher’s effectiveness in teaching nutrition
and gardening may be dependent on their interest levels in the subject matter. Therefore, perhaps
nutrition and gardening programs in schools are most likely to succeed when instructors are both
knowledgable and interested in the subject area themselves. Increasing children’s consumption
of fruits and vegetables is critical to developing good nutritional habits. Results of the Parmer et
al. study (2009) elucidate the positive effects of school gardening experiences on the dietary
behaviour of young children. Although nutrition education alone improves fruit and vegetable
knowledge and preference in children, adding the hands-on gardening component strengthens the
likelihood that children will increase vegetable intake.
After reviewing twenty–one studies on the impact of garden and nutrition education to
determine the effect on fruit and vegetable consumption in children, Heim et al. (2009) found
that the studies had disparate results and felt some important markers were not being included. In
order to address these inadequacies, Heim et al. decided to conducted a more comprehensive
study at an after-school YMCA program. The twelve week, one hour per week study included 93
participants. There was a strong parental component that included a weekly newsletter with
recipes, information, and home activities related to garden and nutrition education. The new
Thesis: Nutrition & Garden Education Program 20
study tested five areas: fruit and vegetable exposure, preference and self-efficacy, asking
behaviour, and home availability.
Unlike previous research, the study by Heim et al. (2009) prompted students to indicate
whether or not they enjoyed participating in the program. At the conclusion of the program, 97.8
percent of the students indicated that they enjoyed taste-testing different fruits and vegetable;
93.4 percent enjoyed preparing healthy snacks; 95.6 percent enjoyed gardening; and, 91.3
percent enjoyed learning about nutrition. This positive response to the garden and nutrition
program translated to an increase in the number of vegetables consumed, as well as an increase
in vegetable preference. Self-efficacy did not improve, but asking behaviour did. The quantity of
vegetables available at home was high at baseline and did not improve at post-test. In social
cognitive theory, it is important to have a positive preference before an actual change is made.
The postive response to the program seemed to have a direct result in more vegetables eaten.
Thesis: Nutrition & Garden Education Program 21
Methodology & Results
Results of Previous Studies
An initial review of these ten studies suggests that including nutrition education, with a
hands-on garden component, at schools increased vegetable consumption by the participants in
some cases, but not all. However, a closer review of the studies reveals that eight studies
evidenced an increase in at least one of the three areas: knowledge, preference, and consumption.
The two studies that did not show positive results in any area were those conducted by Poston et
al. (2005) and O’Brien and Shoemaker (2004). However, these two studies featured the least
number of participants, the shortest total lesson time, and the shortest length of program. The
study performed by Poston et al. (2005) included only 29 participants, and each participant only
had either seven and a half hours or twelve hours of lessons over a time period of five to eight
weeks. The study conducted by O’Brien and Shoemaker (2004) had only 38 participants and
included lessons for a total of eleven hours over six weeks.
According to Heim et al. (2009), it can take between five and ten tastes before liking a
new food, and in a study by Wardle, Cooke, Gibson, Sapochnik, Sheiham, and Lawson (2003),
after exposing a child to a food everyday for fourteen days, the child’s liking and willingness to
eat that food increases. In light of these assertions, it is obvious that only seven to twelve hours
over a period of five to eight weeks is a rather insufficient alottment of instruction time to change
either preference or consumption behavior of fruits and vegetables. Therefore, the failure of
these two studies to effect a noticable change in participant’s behavior may, in fact, be due to
inherent flaws in their design.
Thesis: Nutrition & Garden Education Program 22
Overall, the findings of the studies tend to support the thesis that the inclusion of a
nutrition education program, including a hands-on garden component, into the middle school
environment will increase student’s consumption of fruits and vegetables. Studies with control
groups generally showed that the experimental groups manifested a positive change towards
greater consumption. The negative changes that were illustrated within these studies were
attributed to issues such as lesser periods of time, small number of participants, and lack of
parental involvement, as well as poor selection or lack of random selection of participants.
Perhaps adjusting the methodology of the studies with negative results would have yielded
positive findings. These adjustments would have included the lengthening of the time of the
study, the increasing of the number of participants, and the increasing of demographic variables
of the study.
Methodology for Building a Successful Nutrition Curriculum
The purpose of this research paper is to determine if the inclusion of a nutrition education
program with a hands-on gardening component in schools will increase student’s consumption of
vegetables. It is evident from research that an increase of vegetables can have a positive effect on
a person’s overall health. With the increasing rates of obesity and obesity related disease in
America among both adults and children, it is important that every effort be made to teach
children about proper nutrition and the benefits of eating fruits and vegetables daily. Most of the
studies included in the literature review implemented social cognitive theory, which promotes
behavior change using three approaches: personal knowledge, behavior/skill, and visual
connection with the environment (Contento, 2007). The reviewer looked at several criteria in
each study and determined that the following variables effected the results: the length of time the
Thesis: Nutrition & Garden Education Program 23
participants were involved in the program, the number of participants, placement and timing of
the program (in/out and during/after school), if a control group was used, the ethnicity and
socioeconomic status of the participants, and parental involvement or component in the program.
After analyzing research results presented in the literature review, several things became
clear about what to include in a nutrition education program. The first and most obvious of
which is a hands-on garden component, which is an experiential way to effectively increase
valuable knowledge and skills, as well as to demonstrate a positive relationship with the
environment in respect to healthy eating. In order to effect positive results, in which an effective
nutrition and garden curriculum increased vegetable consumption in the participants, it was also
determined that the education program should be at least a year in length and include both
weekly nutrition lessons and weekly hands-on garden activities. Additionally, the program
should include taste testing of the foods grown in the garden, a cooking component to increase
the self-efficacy of healthy eating, and a parental component to reinforce and support both
learning and behavior changes in participants. A successful program necessitates that participants
learn about nutrition, gain the skills necessary to make healthy food choices, and, finally,
synthesize skill, preference, and knowledge to effect behavior change.
Due to the many external and environmental factors at play (which tend to negatively
impact a child’s likelihood of increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables), it is important
that schools develop comprehensive nutrition curricula supporting the positive trend of healthy
eating habits. Generally, a good curriculum will include multiple modes of instruction, so that
the eventual element of success is dependent on the nature of positive forces that are brought to
bear on the aspect of curriculum change. Past studies have shown that schools that adopt well-
Thesis: Nutrition & Garden Education Program 24
developed curricula on nutrition are less likely to experience cases of obesity within the student
In summary, the following list of criteria details the essential aspects of an effective
nutrition and garden education program:
weekly nutrition lessons
weekly experiential, hands-on gardening lessons
taste testing of fruits and vegetables (from the garden if possible)
hands-on cooking with whole, fresh food
duration of program must be at least one year
parental involvement via newsletters, recipes, and taste testing food prepared by
students while in the program
participants from low-income minority communities
Thesis: Nutrition & Garden Education Program 25
Obesity is a major issue of concern in childhood, with multiple negative consequences for
physical and psychological health, academic performance, and the overall economy. Adding to
the problem of obesity is the established trend of poor eating habits. Additionally, obesity in
childhood is a poor indicator of health in adulthood. The findings of this thesis suggest that the
inclusion of a nutrition and garden curriculum in middle schools is likely to increase the
consumption of fruits and vegetables and, thus, decrease the incidence of obesity. A major
benefit of establishing a nutrition and gardening curriculum in general education is not only the
prevention of obesity, but the instilling of values that can transform the poor eating habits of a
generation of students, thus leading to a greater potential for better health in adulthood. An added
benefit of a nutrition and gardening curriculum is the experiential nature of the learning process,
which enables students to make direct correlations from the classroom to their everyday lives.
Lastly, family involvement is implied, which connects school learning to home life as well.
This thesis is based on the idea that the most effective curricula are those that are
modeled along the social cognitive theory (Contento, 2007; Edelstein, 2011). This theory will
make it possible for students to adjust their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors after a prolonged
period of exposure to positive forces that they encounter in a school-based nutrition and
education learning program. The adoption of positive nutritional behavior among students is
regarded as one of the most fundamental aspects of positive lifestyle change (Hark & Morrison,
2009). Often the process of change includes the gradual transformation of the external forces that
affect the manner in which the student thinks. The nutrition and gardening education curriculum
outlined in this thesis meets these requirements for behavior change through incorporating
Thesis: Nutrition & Garden Education Program 26
parental involvement, environmental factors, cultural factors, and behavioral factors (Marks,
Sisirak, & Heller, 2010).
By means of analyzing previous research on implementing nutrition and gardening curricula in
general education, this thesis has affirmed the hypothesis that such programs, when they meet the
identified criteria described in the results section, can increase student intake of vegetables and
fruits. The path forward to creating new curricula based on research must involve an intelligent
analysis of the data already gathered, as well as the inclusion of new and improved research. It is
the hope of this researcher to develop new a curriculum in the area of nutrition and gardening
that furthers the understanding of the efficacy of such a program. Ultimately, the research and
the curriculum are aimed at lowering childhood obesity through improving diet, which in turn
will improve the overall health of students and, on a societal level, the economic state of the
health care system. Indeed, many benefits can arise through making students more aware of the
foods they eat. In the end, the motto ―you are what you eat‖ may just turn out to be true.
Thesis: Nutrition & Garden Education Program 27
Jill Parsh developed a passion for healthy, whole foods at an early age through her
family’s vegetable garden. As an adult, that passion ripened from growing a garden into cooking,
eating, and studying the health benefits of whole foods.
Jill worked her way through college, earning a degree in business administration and a
job in corporate America. Eventually, long workdays, stressful deadlines, and a lack of real
meaning in her job began to affect her health, and Jill began to suffer from fatigue, digestive
issues, and chronic neck and shoulder pain. Realizing how essential it was to follow her passion
for whole, healthy foods, she took a sabbatical from the corporate lifestyle and began her journey
to fulfillment. While traveling through Central America, Jill discovered the Nosara Yoga
Institute in Costa Rica, where she earned a 200-hour Yoga Teacher Certification. Upon her
return to the United States., she earned a certificate in Holistic Health Coaching at the Institute of
Integrative Nutrition in New York City.
With a Certificate as a Holistic Health Coach, and in the process of earning a Master’s
degree in Health and Nutrition Education, Jill took her passion for healthy eating and health
living into the local school garden as a volunteer. Though this experience, the issue of childhood
obesity became apparent, and Jill’s mission to empower children through nutrition knowledge,
hands-on gardening, and food activities became her main focus.
Thesis: Nutrition & Garden Education Program 28
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