More low-income students can benefit from school gardens

Despite national growth, disparities exist among school garden prevalence.

Michigan State University Extension Grand Traverse County supports the development of school gardens through FoodCorps.
Michigan State University Extension Grand Traverse County supports the development of school gardens through FoodCorps.

The number of school gardens has grown tremendously over the last few years. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm to School Census 2013, a national survey aimed at gathering data on local food sourcing, prevalence of school gardens and classroom activity linked to classroom food system education, has documented over 7,000 active school gardens throughout the country. This value represents a 40 percent increase when compared with the 2013 census findings.

Research has documented a number of benefits associated with school gardens. School gardens have been shown to increase knowledge and awareness about gardening, agriculture, healthy eating and seasonality. School gardens positively impact children’s attitudes and consumption of fruit and vegetables. School gardens also have been shown to provide an opportunity for moderate physical activity and social interaction among peers.

Recently published research from Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Bridging the Gap, examined trends among elementary school gardens throughout the country. Surveys were collected from school administrators at nationally representative samples of public elementary schools each year between 2006-07 and 2013-14 school years. In addition to confirming the steady rate of growth in the number of school gardens, researchers found that the number of garden programs varied widely by school region, size and socioeconomic status of the student. School gardens were:

  • Less common in the south and Midwestern regions of the U.S
  • More common at urban elementary schools compared to schools in small towns
  • Less common at smaller schools than at larger schools
  • Significantly less common at schools that serve mainly low-income students

Authors noted that this last finding, the difference between school garden prevalence and student economic status is a key consideration when considering future focus and effort. Some suggested recommendations to bolster garden development at schools include the following:

  • School districts should consider adding language supportive of school gardens in their local wellness policies
  • Engage parents and school staff to commit to active roles
  • Identify financial support to increase sustainability and commitment
  • Schools should consider developing direct partnerships with programs facilitated by Cooperative Extension
  • Partner with local farmers and nonprofit organizations that support sustainable food systems 

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