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Gardening for Good Health

by Amanda Z. Naprawa  

Do you want your family to eat more fresh vegetables and fruit? Start a garden. Whether at home or in a community garden, growing vegetables, fruit, and herbs is one of the best ways to get your family to eat their daily servings of greens, oranges, and reds.

There are so many benefits to getting your hands dirty. A garden requires physical activity. You spend time outdoors, away from screens and electronics. By working with plants and soil you get back in touch with the earth. Plus, you get involved with your food, as you watch it grow.

Why gardens improve nutrition

A chronic comment about our modern world is that we no longer have a relationship with our sources of food. It comes from the store—and the store gets it from many places around the world. But start a vegetable garden and you are suddenly invested in the health and well-being of the plants that supply your nourishment, which in turn can get you more excited about eating the fresh fruits and vegetables they produce. Who wouldn’t want to taste something they helped nurture?

This phenomenon may be especially pronounced in children, for whom research has found that tending a garden not only encourages greater fruit and vegetable consumption, but can help prevent or even reverse childhood obesity. In a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, for instance, researchersfollowed families in North Carolina who took part in a seven-week gardening, cooking, and nutrition workshop. Each family worked a plot at one of three community gardens. During specific open times, staff assisted families in preparing, planting, tending, and harvesting their gardens. Community-building activities such as seasonal potluck dinners using foods grown in the garden were also encouraged.

At the end of the seven weeks, not only had the children in the program increased their consumption of fruits and vegetables in general, but roughly 17 percent of those who were overweight saw a reduced body mass index (BMI). Another study based in East Los Angeles showed similar results. And in a Sacramento-based pilot program, 100 percent of participants, many of them school-age children, reported increasing their consumption of fruits and vegetables after participating in a community garden.

Community gardens hold special promise in areas where families don’t have regular access to fresh fruits and vegetables. An estimated 6.5 million American children live in such areas, sometimes called “food deserts” or “food-insecure areas.” For families in these areas, purchasing good-quality fresh fruit and vegetables can be nearly impossible: In one study, only 18 percent of grocery stores in a low-income East Los Angeles neighborhood sold vegetables and fruits that weren’t overripe or rotting.Community gardens combat this problem by giving participants not only the chance to learn about nutrition and healthy eating, but also access to land in which to grow healthy food.

Other benefits of gardening

The rewards of community- or school-based gardening extend beyond nutrition. Children (and adults) who garden are also increasing their physical activity level, which is another important component of a healthy lifestyle. Children who participate in garden-based learning during the school day show increased levels of physical activity compared to those who learn only inside a classroom. Some evidence suggests that such programs may improve academic performanceas well. Community gardens are also a great way to build social support among neighbors.

Bottom line: Gardening is good for you and your family. To learn more about gardening and ways to get started, visit the CDC’s community gardens page, which provides information about gardening for health and links to reliable information sources.