Growing healthier kids

Study pits gardening against childhood obesity

children spend a part of their morning tending a garden plot at Raintree Montessori School, 4601 Clinton Parkway, in this 2005 file photo. Candice Shoemaker, associate professor of horticulture, forestry and recreation resources at Kansas State University, has received a grant for .04 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Research Institute to study whether gardening can promote healthier lifestyles.

Many of us love talking about the growth of flowers, trees and shrubs, but they’re not the only things blossoming before our eyes.

Childhood obesity is at an all-time high. Nearly one-third of U.S. children are overweight, according to the Annual National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This trend is particularly troublesome because it can start kids on a path to health problems once confined to adults, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, menstrual problems, trouble sleeping and asthma.

But Candice Shoemaker, associate professor of horticulture, forestry and recreation resources at Kansas State University, hopes to do something about it. She has received a grant for $1.04 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Research Institute to study whether gardening can promote healthier lifestyles.

The study – Project PLANTS (Promoting Lifelong Activity and Nutrition Through Schools) – was inspired by Shoemaker’s experience, shortly after starting at K-State in 2001, of implementing the Junior Master Gardener Health and Nutrition Through the Garden program at elementary schools.

“My responsibility was to investigate the effectiveness of the program as a way to change children’s perception of fruits and vegetables, their willingness to try fruits and vegetables and general nutritional knowledge,” she says. “That two-year project provided the preliminary data and the direction for Project PLANTS.”

So why are there so many overweight kids today? What has changed so drastically in our way of life that these numbers are skyrocketing? Shoemaker attempts to explain the multifaceted issue.

“The availability and pull of video games, hundreds of television channels is a very effective lure to encouraging sedentary behavior,” she says. “Many of these attractions provide an avenue for advertisers to market fast food and snack food. How many times do you think a child sees an advertisement to eat a juicy apple while surfing the Internet?

“Portion sizes are expanding with our waistbands. The latch-key child, for safety purposes, needs to stay inside while waiting for the parents to come home, and once the parents are home, dinner is served, home work is done – is there time to go outside and play?

How walkable are our communities? Drive-throughs encourage us to stay in our cars, while remote controls encourage us to stay on the couch.”

In many ways, we have no one to blame but ourselves. If the rest of the family is eating fried foods and trans fats, how can we expect our children not to be turned off by fresh fruits and vegetables?

Hilary Brown, owner of Local Burger, says additives and sugars used in most food are keeping people fat. She serves local, organic food at her restaurant, 714 Vt.

“(Childhood obesity) is obviously a problem that’s growing,” she says. “We recently heard that the younger generations will have a shorter life expectancy than their parents, which is unacceptable.”

Brown is working on a youth version of her recent “Localize Me” project, in which she had a 29-year-old Lawrence man eat only Local Burger meals for a month (a healthy spin on Morgan Spurlock’s “Super Size Me,” in which the filmmaker consumed only McDonald’s grub). This time around, it will be a 12-year-old girl who gets blood tests and a doctor’s physical before and after the experiment.

“My hopes are that she feels better and has more energy,” Brown says. “My assumption is that she’ll be feeling better and through that have lost weight and her sugars will be improved.”

While exhortations by health officials to eat better seem to be sinking in, their messages about staying active don’t seem to be taking hold. Some of that could be due to the reduction or loss of physical education classes in school.

“In the context of my research over the past four years, I would say that a high percentage of the children are interested in eating right, less are interested in exercising, and most are interested in caring for the environment through gardening,” Shoemaker says.

With the grant she has acquired, Shoemaker plans to create gardens in the Manhattan-Ogden Unified School District and begin after-school programs. The four-year project will include one year of planning and pilot testing; two years of conducting the experiment, with half the schools receiving gardens and half not, by random selection; and a final year of analysis and evaluation. Shoemaker hopes to create a model for how a school garden can work and a curriculum for a permanent after-school gardening program.

Gardening tends to be an effective teaching tool for children. Perhaps if we can relay the importance of proper care and nutrition for a healthier planet, the message will extend to how youngsters think about caring for their bodies.

Shoemaker has high hopes for Project PLANTS.

“We hope the result of this project will be an after-school gardening program that is an effective overweight prevention program and a community-level program that is an effective method to establish and sustain school gardens,” she says.