The potential for school gardens to enhance health

Nutrition involves many complex relationships between humans and food. The changing food supply has affected our understanding of the origins and roles of food in our lives. Supermarket shopping and television advertising are examples of major influences on public perceptions of food origins. Although much less present in contemporary urban life, gardening also offers opportunities to explore food origins firsthand.

School-based community gardens are an emerging setting for health promotion activity. This premise is based on community gardening affecting three major environmental influences on longevity: diet, physical activity and psychosocial fulfilment. In our first prevalence study, we found that 24% of primary (elementary) schools in an urban area south-west of Brisbane reported having a functioning vegetable garden, with extensive integration of garden activities across a broad range of curriculum areas, indicating that School-based community gardens represent a significant opportunity to embed nutrition, physical activity and environmental sustainability into mainstream curricula.

School gardens usage varies according to climate

As a sequel to this earlier work, we conducted a crosssectional study to determine the prevalence and usage of food gardens in primary schools in three distinct climatic regions of north-eastern Australia. Overall, 29% of schools had functioning food gardens. Climate was a major factor affecting the success of food gardens. Gardens were often used by schools to teach science, environment or social skills. Gardening activities were generally linked to curriculum studies on plants, fruit and vegetable (F&V) intake and healthy eating. The main issues were the time required and the lack of personnel to coordinate garden activities. Of the schools with food gardens, 92% believed their garden had been a success.

This study confirmed strong grass-roots support for schoolbased food gardens. Respondents nominated teacher involvement and sustained motivation as essential factors for success.

School gardens improve determinants of vegetable and fruit intake

Early intervention is integral to chronic disease prevention, with major international initiatives focusing on enhancing diet, especially F&V intake, in children. F&V consumption is driven by knowledge of and attitudes towards such foods, and changes to these factors in children can influence consumption later in life.

We installed a food garden in a suburban state primary school in a low socioeconomic area of Brisbane, Australia. In comparing outcomes at 12 months with control data, we found that children showed enhanced ability to identify individual F&V (p<0.05), greater attention to origins of produce (garden-grown and fresh) (p<0.001), changes to perceived consumption of F&V (p<0.001), and enhanced confidence in preparing F&V snacks (p<0.05).

School gardens : an opportunity ?

School-based food gardens are a prevalent and expanding phenomenon. Increasing evidence indicates associations between use of school gardens and changes in déterminants of F&V consumption. The ways in which such changes might impact on dietary behaviours and intake requires further analysis.

  • School of Public Health, Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia Somerset S, Bossard A. Variations in prevalence and conduct of school food gardens in tropical and subtropical regions of North-Eastern Australia. Public Health Nutrition 2009: Epub ahead of print
  • Somerset S, MARKWELL K. Impact of a school-based food garden on food knowledge and attitudes: a 12-month intervention trial. Public Health Nutrition 2008; 12(2):214-221
  • Somerset S, Ball R, Flett M, Geissman R. School-based Community gardens: Re-establishing health relationships with food. Journal of the Home Economics Institute of Australia 2005;12(2):25-33.