Integrating Gardening, Nutrition, & 4-H Positive Youth Development: An Overview

Integrating Gardening, Nutrition, & 4-H Positive Youth Development: An Overview

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Carrie Backman, Community and Economic Development, Washington State University
Building a successful youth gardening program brings multiple benefits to youth health and nutrition. With some careful planning from the start to establish leadership roles, site design, and integrating nutrition lessons, adult garden mentors can set the stage for youth to develop life skills and understanding in nutrition and gardening. Information on these considerations is presented in this publication, along with references for curriculum and other youth gardening resources.
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Gardening has long been a popular 4-H project among youth and families and is increasingly integrated into schools as part of class time and after school clubs. Research is growing in support of the many positive impacts of gardening on youth nutrition.

Overall, youth who plant and harvest their own produce (Figure 1) are more likely to eat it (Morris and Zidenberg-Cherr 2002). Youth in gardening programs are also more likely to try new healthy behaviors, including cooking, gardening, and eating new and healthy foods (Beckman and Smith 2008). Research also shows improved recognition of vegetables, increased preference for vegetables, and a greater willingness to taste more varieties of vegetables among youth in garden-based learning. (Ratcliffe et al. 2011). However, simply exposing youth to gardening by itself may not translate to desired outcomes like improved vegetable intake;

Figure 1. Students planted and harvested pumpkins at the Wahkiakum School District’s garden, and they took home their pumpkins as part of the school’s fall harvest festival.
it’s important to be thoughtful and targeted in gardening program delivery and to work with youth in hands-on activities to grow skills in gardening and food preparation (Odera et al 2013).

Considerations when building strong youth gardening programs include delineating adult and youth leadership roles, designing the site, and integrating nutrition and other life skills.

Garden Leadership

Youth gardening programs are often well supported by school and community members, and may attract a cohort of volunteers interested in youth development, nutrition, food preparation and gardening. Groups with associated interests may be good partners and sources for willing and knowledgeable volunteers, including WSU Master Gardeners, community garden members, food bank organizations such as Northwest Harvest, school parent groups, and other like-minded organizations. Master Gardeners familiar and interested in positive youth development are particularly helpful as volunteers in the youth garden, providing expert guidance and education during the start-up phase of the garden and throughout the gardening season. Listed below are some essential roles that lead volunteers in youth gardening programs can play.

Adult Leadership Roles

Garden Coordinator

The coordinator helps keep the youth and other adult volunteers on track with garden plans and lessons. The garden coordinator keeps everyone up to date each week during the growing season, which might include weekly emails with the next week’s plans. The garden coordinator also helps find youth and adults willing to take on other necessary roles in the garden as explained here. The garden coordinator should learn volunteers’ interests and time availability and help them find well-suited roles within the garden. It’s essential to keep everyone in the loop regarding the overall game plan and structure, as well as necessary jobs and next steps. Youth and volunteers can become easily frustrated if they are unsure of work or activities needed to be done for the day.

Some youth gardens have good success with Americorps members in this role. Host sites, like school or community gardens, provide initial funding that is matched by Americorps to provide a monthly stipend to the Americorps member over the year. This steady monthly presence allows the Americorps



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