TX Sprouts program grows healthy eating habits in Austin schools

Grace Dickens

Educators at TX Sprouts are growing more than just gardens in local Austin schools.

Funded by the National Institutes of Health, TX Sprouts is an educational program spearheaded by Jaimie Davis, a nutrition associate professor. The program aims to teach third through fifth-grade students in the Austin area about hands-on gardening, nutrition and cooking. “There are certain programs surrounding nutrition that have the expectation of seeing changes in every way, but we factor in the cultural and socioeconomic factors of the students we teach,” TX Sprouts educator Meg Mattingly said. “We help them know how to eat better within their norm, and try to give them information to empower them.”

Schools were chosen for the study by their proportion of Hispanic students, overweight and obese students, participation rates in free and reduced lunch, distance from the UT-Austin campus and interest in gardening or nutrition programs. Each school receives a grant for $5,000 to build a garden on school grounds, and students have the opportunity to participate first-hand in the growing of their own vegetables.

Once chosen, schools are randomly designated as either intervention or control schools. Since they are being tracked for academic purposes, intervention schools abide by a strict lesson plan of 18 lessons and teach all fourth and fifth-grade students, as well as third-grade students if time allows. Control schools only have 12 lessons and are based on an opt-in system for teachers who wish to participate. The effectiveness of the program is measured by childhood obesity markers, dietary intake and related behaviors, physical activity levels and school performance.

“A lot of our students are low-income, so they may get multiple meals a week from fast food or convenience stores,” TX Sprouts intervention school educator Michele Hockett-Cooper said. “We focus on the fact that when they need to eat in those places, which is not bad, there are ways to make healthier choices. We even talk about places like the cafeteria, where they have the choice of chocolate versus regular milk.”

Students at these schools often live in food deserts, or areas where distance, price or selection can prevent access to healthy food. Low-income Hispanic students are a population at high risk for being overweight or obese in central Texas, according to Bonnie Martin, the TX Sprouts school liason. TX Sprouts educator Andrea Snow said many of the children in these schools are also pre-diabetic, or prone to developing diabetes, making food choices all the more important.

“Something I think is interesting about our program is that we are also including the parents,” Martin said. “We have a monthly parent class at the schools that follow a similar curriculum to what the kids are getting. We’re trying to influence the shoppers and cooks of the household so that it’s not just the child coming home with this new information.”

Lessons are based on current Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills standards and cover a variety of topics, from the added sugar in soda to the fiber in fruits and vegetables, including a cooking or tasting component. Many of the schools involved in TX Sprouts are failing state report cards, so cross-curricular teaching is especially important to teachers, Hockett-Cooper said. “It makes it more relevant for the classroom teachers to see the validity in taking their classroom lessons and applying them to what we’re doing in TX Sprouts,” Hockett-Cooper said. “We can show them by drawing in their class lessons that this program can be used as a supplemental teaching tool in a creative classroom space.”