Food gardens offer healthy rewards

Posted August 11, 2016

The perks of gardening go beyond a beautiful yard or community park. This simple activity has a variety of healthy rewards. Food gardens, in particular, are not only sources of fresh and delicious produce; their harvest includes the possibility of improved eating habits and enjoyable physical activity In addition, sharing a garden with family, friends or the community can even provide social and mental benefits.

According to a recent report titled Garden to Table: A 5-Year Look at Food Gardening in America, published by the National Gardening Association, in the past five years, there has been a significant shift towards Americans growing their own food in home and community gardens. The 17 percent increase in gardening represents the highest level of food gardening in more than a decade, with 42 million households in 2013, including more urban residents, millennials (ages 18-34), and households with children.

You don’t need an extensive garden to gain the benefits. Many gardens start out small and can begin with even a few easy-to-grow plants, such as cherry tomatoes or herbs like basil. For physical activity, light digging, planting, mulching and weeding all count toward the type of moderate-intensity physical activity recommended for health. The goal is 250 minutes total per week, and 30-45 minutes of gardening several times a week or more adds to this. Ultimately, gardening can become part of a physically active lifestyle that contributes to a healthier body weight and reduced risk for diseases such as heart disease or type 2 diabetes.

To harvest the nutritional benefits of gardens, families with home gardens can take hints from the ways that schools have integrated garden-based nutrition education into their curriculums and lunch rooms. A large research review of garden-based youth programs indicates that most involve an experiential component where children participate in each step of the growing process. This includes planting, maintaining and harvesting produce from the garden. Involvement across several seasons may provide children with a deeper understanding and appreciation of the “fruits of their labor.”

Many garden-based school programs also provide helpful lessons in the classroom to support the activities in the garden and may offer children the chance to explore and develop a taste for the fruits and vegetables that they’re growing. Some schools take things a step further and involve children in cooking and preparing their own school lunches using freshly harvested ingredients. Initial results of these studies suggest that children who participate in garden programs develop a willingness to taste fruits and vegetables. They may also show some improvement in preferences for produce.

In addition to a growing number of school-based gardens, community gardens have taken root in many locations across the country. The American Planning Association defines community gardens as “shared open spaces where individuals garden together to grow fresh, healthful and affordable fruits and vegetables.” Community gardens may be found in rural and suburban areas, and often urban neighborhoods such as vacant city lots.

In urban areas, community gardens can help increase the availability and intake of fruits and vegetables for individuals by offering affordable and convenient access to fresh produce. In one recent study, adults with a household member who participated in a community garden consumed fruits and vegetables more often than those who did not participate. They were also more likely to consume fruits and vegetables at least five times a day. While these research findings are exciting, due to challenges with study design and research methods, there’s still more to understand about the nutritional and other health benefits of school and community gardens.

As school and community gardens continue to expand, there are also an increasing number of gardens used in therapeutic locations such as hospitals or rehabilitative facilities. This may be in part because of research that supports the stress relief and other mental health benefits of gardens. Gardens have also been shown to positively influence things like community development and even property value.

With all of these benefits it’s hard for those who haven’t gardened before to not want to give it a try. In the coming growing season, consider starting a garden or expanding a current garden to include more variety. Some resources to help individuals interested in gardening include the Center for Disease Control’s tips to stay safe when being physically active in the garden as well as some easy garden checklists from the USDA’s People’s Garden. In addition to national resources, there are also a variety of local groups to contact, including the county extension services as well as community garden nonprofit organizations.

Lastly, consider volunteering at a local community garden or even helping a friend or neighbor with garden activities and maintenance. In return for efforts, individuals may find more than just vegetables as rewards, including deeper relationships and improved personal and community health.


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