Developing Healthy Habits Early in Life
Gardening has been considered one of America’s favorite pastimes for many years. Anyone can garden if the interest and desire is there. Gardening can create an educational opportunity as well as fun and creativity for people of all ages and backgrounds. There is nothing like growing fresh fruits and vegetables in a home or community setting. It teaches nutrition, plant science, food safety and decision-making all at once.
Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES) and Alabama 4-H, during the past year, have begun implementing strategic program initiatives. These new initiatives were formed after ACES went through a needs-assessment statewide. Groups were formed at local levels to determine their community needs. One of the strongest needs determined by these conversations was to help lower the incidence of obesity. Alabama 4-H and the Junior Master Gardener (JMG) programs teamed up using the Health and Nutrition from the Garden curriculum. This curriculum was created at Texas A&M about 10 years ago.
When presented with a hands-on, minds-on learning environment, children can really absorb the lesson presented and enhance the educational experience. JMG: Health and Nutrition from the Garden is a great example of this style of learning. The overall goal of the program is to educate youth about the benefits of gardening and healthy living by placing importance on having fresh fruits and vegetables as part of a daily lifestyle. We are introduced to the Food Guide Pyramid at some point during our lifetime. As we learn more about what the body needs to be healthy and productive, it is important to guide youth in a positive direction so they can keep an open mind to trying or retrying fresh fruits and vegetables.
Healthy eating habits are developed early in life. The great thing about 4-H JMG is youth can learn about plant science and healthy living, and take it home to their families. Gardening at home can be a wonderful way to spend quality family-time. By choosing what to plant and sharing maintenance responsibilities, the rewards can be awesome! Gardening can be a way to stretch the family dollar as well. Produce can be stored and used in a variety of ways until the next planting season.
Across the state, JMG: Health and Nutrition from the Garden was conducted in classrooms, day camps and with 4-H clubs. In Lee County this summer, a local day camp program participated in the program with about 60 youth. The campers participated in six lessons.
Youth were taught to identify what a plant’s needs are to grow and thrive so fruits and/or vegetables would be of high quality. Many factors contribute to quality: Place, Light, Air, Nutrients, Thirst and Soil (PLANTS).
The campers were able to take home a project to try to germinate their own plant from a seed. Youth had the opportunity to have a role as a farmer of a particular fruit/vegetable so they could practice bartering to exchange surplus foods for needed foods. Learning how to negotiate with fellow participants was a good way to practice communication and decision-making skills. Plus, they were exposed to a system utilized by their ancestors many, many years ago and still within some countries today.
The importance of food safety was presented and discussed. Youth learned not to cross-contaminate foods when preparing for a meal and how germs like bacteria and mold can affect their fruits and vegetables.
On the last day of the program, the youth were treated to two activities involving taste testing! The campers were given five samples of a fruit or vegetable to determine color, texture, taste and smell. The samples were not identified until after the tasting was done. Many of the youth were excited about retrying an old favorite or trying something new.
The last activity allowed campers to explore their creative side and learn about symmetry by making a fun and healthy snack. The assignment was to construct their own personal bug by using graham crackers, peanut butter or yogurt, raisins, blueberries, apples, plums and pretzel sticks. The goal was to create an insect symmetrical in appearance. The reward was getting to eat their bug! There were definitely many creative minds hard at work on their creations!
In Marion and Fayette Counties the JMG: Health and Nutrition Program was conducted in the classroom at three elementary schools. Third graders at Hubbertville Elementary School in Fayette County were so excited to be able to take squash plants home so they could grow them on their own. The third graders participated in a six-week program with 4-H Regional Extension Agent Ronni Rena Brasher leading the program.
Brasher finished the year with fifth and sixth graders at Guin Elementary and fifth graders at Hamilton Elementary School in Marion County.
Overall, the JMG: Health and Nutrition Program was very successful during the past year. The participating young people learned about growing vegetables, food safety and nutrition while they were having fun. While the kids were enjoying themselves, we (Alabama 4-H) were able to fulfill some of our responsibilities to our communities by implanting such a program.
Luci Davis is the State Junior Master Gardener Coordinator. For more information on the program, phone (334) 703-7509.
Kirstin Holt is a 4-H Regional Extension Agent.