UT researchers plant good health at elementary schools

Kate Thackrey

For students at Oak Meadows Elementary school, nutrition starts early. 

The UT research group TX Sprouts built the first of six elementary school gardens at Oak Meadows this Saturday. The two-year study will examine the effects that working in a garden has on student health.

Jaimie Davis, the lead researcher for TX Sprouts, said kids develop a taste for fruits and vegetables through gardening. They also show lower obesity levels.

“There’s evidence and research to support that a garden approach can improve health or improve diet, as well as reduce obesity,” Davis said.

The TX Sprouts team designed 18 lessons for the coming year that place importance on culinary, nutrition and gardening skills. Each lesson will include a cooking activity or taste test. Teachers will also be able to use the garden as an outdoor learning space.

TX Sprouts will collect measurements of students’ BMI, waist circumference, weight and height. Students and parents will also fill out surveys to gauge their knowledge and preferences when it comes to gardening, cooking and nutrition. Additionally, students will have the option to give blood in exchange for money, which will be screened for diabetes and other metabolic diseases.

TX Sprouts will follow over 2,400 third through fifth graders at Austin-area schools, beginning with the next fall class. 

Sprouts will work with six elementary schools for the next year and 16 schools over the full two years. 

Researchers chose Title 1 schools made up of a majority of Hispanic students, with more than half of all students using free or reduced lunches. 

Katie Nikah, the TX Sprouts senior project coordinator, said that Hispanic and low-income communities are at a high risk for food-related health problems.

TX Sprouts worked with outdoor learning specialist Anne Muller to choose which schools to work with. Muller teaches Austin ISD students about science and nature at the Discovery Hill Outdoor Learning Center.

“The hope is it’s going to make our kids happier, healthier and smarter,” Muller said.

According to Muller, 82 percent of Austin ISD schools from pre-K to high school already have an active school garden, and 8 percent have inactive gardens.

The Travis County Master Gardeners Association and the Sustainable Food Center will provide instruction for students and host training sessions for school employees, Davis said. Teachers will be able to shadow TX Sprouts instructors for the first year to continue the program after research ends.

The study will be funded by a National Institute of Health RO1 grant of $3.8 million.

“This is the first time NIH has funded a big garden project,” Davis said. “Usually the USDA will fund something along these lines, but they’re very hard to come by.”

The new garden cost $5,000, and features cinder-block garden beds painted by Oak Meadows students as well as an outdoor learning area. Bonnie Martin, who worked with schools to design the garden, said that teachers from all subjects are interested in doing outside lessons.

“It’s a good six to eight month process,” Martin said. “[But] we got great interest from the district right away.”

The program is an extension of one of Davis’ smaller studies in Los Angeles, an extracurricular program called LA Sprouts. The Austin study encompasses more schools, counts as class time and stresses parental involvement.

Davis said she has seen an increase in interest in garden programs through recent years.

“A simple approach of teaching kids how to garden and how to cook the food that they harvest is really impactful,” Davis said.