How School Gardens Could Help Kids Try More Veggies

illustration of school kids gardening

Joshua Seong / Verywell

Key Takeaways

  • Gardening programs at school can increase children’s vegetable exposure and consumption.
  • Exposure can mean reading, gardening, or trying new vegetables at home.

Getting children to eat vegetables is notoriously challenging. But new research suggests that garden, nutrition, and cooking programs in schools can positively influence children’s vegetable intake.

The study follows up on previous research that implemented a garden, nutrition, and cooking program in an after-school care setting. In the after-school care study, children were provided intensive lessons over a 12-week period, which resulted in healthier body weight, BMI, and waist circumference and increased vegetable intake for participants.

Researchers sought to find out if they would receive similar results if the program was implemented into the school curriculum and taught during class time across a full school year, thus targeting a larger number of children.

They also sought to implement this in schools containing a high proportion of low-income Hispanic families, due to these children statistically having the lowest fruit and vegetable consumption among children in the United States.

Body Mass Index (BMI) is a dated, biased measure that doesn’t account for several factors, such as body composition, ethnicity, race, gender, and age.

Despite being a flawed measure, BMI is widely used today in the medical community because it is an inexpensive and quick method for analyzing potential health status and outcomes.

What the Study Shows

The study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity conducted a cluster-randomized control trial across 16 schools and three years, with eight intervention schools receiving the gardening program for one school year each. The other eight schools did not receive the program, so researchers could compare results between schools.

Children in grades 3 to 5 received a total of 18 60-minute lessons by a specialized teacher across the school year. Over the course of this year, classes covered the following topics:

  • Healthy cooking and preparation of fruits & vegetables
  • Making nutritious food choices in different environments
  • Eating locally produced food and low sugar beverages made with fruit and vegetables
  • Health benefits of fresh fruit and vegetables
  • How to eat healthily when fresh fruit and vegetables are in scarce supply
  • Food equity and community service

The intervention schools had a garden built at the school as part of the program. It was used in the specialized classes to teach children first hand about growing their own fresh produce.

Parental information nights were scheduled at the intervention schools to inform and involve parents, however, participation at these events was low. “Transportation issue[s] prevented many families from coming,” explains lead researcher Dr. Jaimie Davis, “Over 80% of these school populations take the bus, and our data show that a large number of families have one car, so getting to school was a challenge.”

The program found that vegetable intake among children did increase significantly across the year. There were no changes in BMI, blood pressure, and waist circumference, nor in the consumption of fruit or high sugar beverages.

Dr. Jaimie Davis, RD, PhD

Teaching children to grow their own food is a powerful tool to increasing preference and intake of those vegetable[s]

— Dr. Jaimie Davis, RD, PhD

“While our intervention effectively increased vegetable intake, it was not enough to move the dial on childhood obesity,” admits Davis. However, even in the absence of weight loss, increased vegetable intake still has positive impacts on health.

“Increased vegetable intake can reduce metabolic diseases, even if weight loss does not occur,” explains Davis. “Our preliminary data are showing that [our program], compared to [the] control group, did improve glucose tolerance and lower blood lipids, and those findings will be coming out soon.”

How Increased Veggies Can Improve Overall Health

Despite there being no change to childhood obesity rates in the short term with this intervention, registered dietician Kerry Jones says that the benefits of increased fruit and vegetable intake are still significant. Consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables can improve health because of the high concentration of fiber, vitamins, and minerals contained in these foods.

“There are several benefits of eating more fruit and vegetables on a daily basis, from decreased risk of chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, high cholesterol, diabetes, and some types of cancer,” says Jones.

Not only are there benefits to health, but increasing the variety of fruits and vegetables children are exposed to may make mealtimes a whole lot easier. “Other research has shown that children who are regularly exposed to a variety of vegetables are more likely to try new foods and less likely to be picky eaters,” explains Jones.

The Role Parents Play 

The majority of what children learn about food comes from home. This is why parents play such a pivotal role in shaping food behaviors in children. Children are more likely to try foods that are offered in a positive and supportive environment.

The food that parents expose children to will also influence what a child chooses to eat. Physical exposure to food variety can be difficult for people who live in "food deserts," which include isolated areas or places where fresh food is difficult or expensive to come by.

This is where teaching children to garden at school or at home can be useful, says Davis. “Teaching children to grow their own food is a powerful tool to increasing preference and intake of those vegetable[s].”

Davis also reminds parents that “if you teach children to enjoy vegetables early in life, they are much more likely to continue eating vegetables long-term.”

Getting Your Kids to Try More Veggies

If your school doesn’t have a garden available there are still ways to improve exposure to vegetables and hopefully help kids increase consumption.

Jones reminds parents that exposure to new vegetables doesn’t always have to mean feeding these vegetables to their children straight away. In fact, forcing vegetables may increase resistance to them. “Any opportunity to [expose] your children to more fruits and vegetables is important.”

Kerry Jones, MPH, RDN, LDN

If children are learning about fruits and vegetables at school, it is important to support and encourage this interest.

— Kerry Jones, MPH, RDN, LDN

Support What They Are Learning at School

Other ways to increase fruit and vegetable exposure include reinforcing what they are learning at school. “If children are learning about fruits and vegetables at school, it is important to support and encourage this interest,” says Jones. Listen to what they have learned and read any handouts they bring home from school. 

Read Books Together 

Younger children could enjoy reading stories with parents and caregivers that offer positive messages about fruit and vegetables. Jones suggests:

Older children may enjoy searching through recipe books with you to find new dinner ideas that incorporate vegetables in a tasty way.

Create a Visual Poster or Goals

Choose a new vegetable or fruit with each grocery shop and try it together. Children can draw a picture of each new food they try and add it to a poster on the wall. The more colors they try, the better.

See if they can fill a rainbow poster to encourage variety in colored vegetables. Or they could fill an alphabet chart by finding and trying vegetables starting with each letter of the alphabet.

Start Your Own Garden 

This doesn’t have to be large. A small planter box or pot on your deck or in a sunny part of your home can encourage children to understand more about where their food comes from, and subsequently, increase their desire to consume these foods.

“We need to get back to the basics and teach children where their food comes from. Teaching children to grow and prepare their own produce is a great way to increase intake of that produce,” says Davis.

What This Means For You

Finding variety in foods can be challenging for many parents. Involving your children in the process and asking for their input can help them to feel validated and important. It can also make it less scary for kids when you learn together and lead by example.

4 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Davis JN, Pérez A, Asigbee FM, et al. School-based gardening, cooking and nutrition intervention increased vegetable intake but did not reduce BMI: Texas sprouts - a cluster randomized controlled trial. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2021;18(1):18. doi:10.1186/s12966-021-01087-x

  2. Gatto NM, Martinez LC, Spruijt-Metz D, Davis JN. LA sprouts randomized controlled nutrition, cooking and gardening programme reduces obesity and metabolic risk in Hispanic/Latino youth. Pediatr Obes. 2017;12(1):28-37. doi:10.1111/ijpo.12102

  3. Benton D. Role of parents in the determination of the food preferences of children and the development of obesity. Int J Obes. 2004;28(7):858-869. doi:10.1038/sj.ijo.0802532

  4. Benton D. Role of parents in the determination of the food preferences of children and the development of obesity. Int J Obes. 2004;28(7):858-869. doi:10.1038/sj.ijo.0802532