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Healthy Start: Get children gardening for health

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As the 4 year old walked from Missoula Community Gardens crunching a newly harvested carrot, she was heard to say, "Mom, remember when I told you I did not like carrots? I have changed my mind." This is a success story to the ears of the people working to stimulate interest in gardens here in the Garden City.

The opportunity to nurture a child's curiosity and desire to explore the world can happen with the joys of gardening. Since creating the first school garden, advocates have used gardens as outdoor learning opportunities and as a means of creating a sense of season and place for children. This living laboratory, whether a planter box, outdoor garden or indoor growing area, offers a rich context for exploring. The discovery of a spider spinning its web, the taste of spinach or the smell of fresh dirt make a dramatic learning experience.

The environment is one of the components of overall health. All surroundings and conditions affect the development of a child. Environmental health is intertwined with physical, mental, social and spiritual health. I chair Missoula County Public Schools' School Wellness Environmental Committee. When we visualize an environment for children, we see all the factors that support their growth, development and potential. It's the philosophy that supports art on the walls of schools, music in the halls, natural light in the classroom, playgrounds designed for all students to stretch and explore, bright lunchrooms with posters of fruits and vegetables and round tables for students to socialize, and similar supporting factors.

We see a garden in every school where we create opportunities for our children to discover fresh food, make healthier eating choices and be physically active. Gardens offer dynamic, beautiful settings in which to integrate disciplines, including science, math, reading, language arts, environmental studies, nutrition and health. Such interdisciplinary approaches cultivate the talents and skills of all students while enriching the students' capacities for observation and thinking. School garden projects nurture community spirit, common purpose and cultural appreciation by building bridges among students, school staff, families and local businesses and organizations. It's a win-win situation.

Incorporating gardens into the school environment can improve student performance. In 1999, the California Department of Education commissioned a study of the educational efficacy of environmentally based education. Data from the study found that more than 77 percent of students receiving such education scored higher than their peers on all standardized tests and had higher grade-point averages. Classroom discipline and attendance problems were also reduced in 84 percent of comparison cases. This research indicates that school gardens can increase student achievement and reduce school absenteeism and problem behavior.

The mission of the garden program has expanded to include links with surrounding agricultural areas through school cafeterias, while maintaining the natural connection with cooking in the classroom and school recycling. The concept of linking schools with local farmers to provide fresher, tastier and healthier meals is known as "Farm to School" and is considered part of a healthy school environment. Combining healthy school lunch choices with nutritional education, farm visits, school gardens and cooking projects in the classroom gives children a better opportunity to develop healthy eating habits that last a lifetime. Eating well can make a difference in a student's ability to achieve success in school.

Here in Missoula, we've already implemented some of these ideas.

Today, there are gardens at Lewis and Clark Elementary School and Meadow Hill Middle School, and plans for one at Hellgate High School. The Missoula Farm to School Project is working with local schools to bring fresh produce to children's food trays. Apples and peaches from the Bitterroot and Flathead valleys as well as Dixon melons have been utilized by food-service personnel. Carrots, whole wheat flour, zucchini, cucumbers, pasta, potatoes, onions and milk are now regulars from the food service.

The University of Montana Program in Ecological Agriculture and Society has had 800 elementary and high school students visit its farm sites on field trips. This includes 43 classes from nine public schools, six private schools or preschools, Head Start and Girls Understanding Their Strengths programs. Summer brought eleven children attending a one-week Farm Camp. With more funding, spring as well as fall field trips for children can happen, camps can be expanded and training of staff can be increased.

Last year, the Women, Infants and Children program provided 1,315 fresh fruit and vegetable vouchers for clients in cooperation with the Farmers Market. Community gardens as well as Garden City Harvest have produced hundreds of pounds of produce for Missoula families. And the Missoula County Extension Service brings fresh foods into classrooms with cooking classes for third- and fifth-graders.

Spring is on the way and now is the time to plan for working in a garden or starting your own. Any age can participate - from planting seeds in paper cups on a window sill, to working in a neighborhood garden, building raised beds, converting flower beds into vegetable areas, designing a family plot, talking to your school PTA about a theme garden, donating equipment to a gardening project, volunteering or joining a gardening club.

Use this opportunity to teach your children about life cycles - the cycle of birth, growth, maturation, decline, death and new growth of the next generation. The garden is a rich, multisensory learning environment - the shapes, textures, colors, smells, and sounds of the real world. Learning in a school garden is learning in the real world at its best. It's beneficial for the development of the individual student and the school community, and it's one of the best ways for children to become ecologically literate and thus be able to contribute to building a sustainable future.

Each month, the Missoulian Health page features a column by the Healthy Start Council, a coalition of groups and individuals working collaboratively to improve the lives of young children in Missoula County. The Missoula City-County Health Department is a founding member of the Healthy Start Council. Trudy Mizner is the Nursing Services supervisor at the health department and can be reached at 258-4298 or 301 W. Alder St.

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