MANHATTAN, Kansas – Researcher Candice Shoemaker thinks she might have an answer to the nation’s obesity epidemic in children: gardening. She hopes to show that gardening can promote a healthier lifestyle and combat childhood obesity in several ways. First, Shoemaker said, when children help to grow their own fruits and vegetables, they are more interested in eating them. Also, gardening not only gets children off of the couch and outdoors, but it also counts as physical activity.
In addition, students participating in the after-school gardening club will take plants home to care for. The hope, Shoemaker said, is to encourage gardening in the students’ homes and give them knowledge of and ownership in tending the plants.
Shoemaker, associate professor of horticulture, forestry and recreation resources at Kansas State University, has received a $1.04 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Research Institute to study whether gardening can promote a healthier lifestyle. The study is called Project PLANTS, or Promoting Lifelong Activity and Nutrition Through Schools.
With the grant, Shoemaker and colleagues will work to create gardens and high tunnels — for gardening during the winter months — in Manhattan-Ogden Unified School District schools, as well as an after-school program for fourth- and fifth-grade students to grow their own fruits, vegetables and flowers.
“It will get them outside and away from the TV,” Shoemaker said. “They also may be more likely to do other things while they are outside.”
Researching whether gardening can increase children’s health is not Shoemaker’s only priority; she is also working to show, through this project, that a school garden can be sustained. Previous literature has revealed that a school garden typically is the project of one or two teachers, and when those teachers are no longer able to maintain the garden, it fails. Shoemaker will work to find out how to keep these gardens going long term, and hopes to create a model for other schools to implement through the project.
“We will have a ‘community hub’ at each school,” she said, including parents, after-school staff, teachers, area Master Gardeners and community volunteers. “We will develop a program to work closely with the school, creating the garden and helping to take care of it in the summer. We hope to show how a community can work with a school to put in a garden.”
The Riley County Extension office will recruit and train the Master Gardener volunteers, who will then assist with teaching gardening practices to the students, said Gregg Eyestone, Riley County Extension agent, horticulture. Master Gardeners are certified through Extension by attending training on many horticulture topics and volunteering within the community.
“The interaction of the youth with the Extension Master Gardeners will likely develop into kindred gardening spirits,” Eyestone said.
Karen Roberts, executive director for teaching and learning at the Manhattan-Ogden Unified School District, said there is already high interest in after-school gardening among the students. In addition, the project aligns with the district’s wellness plan.
“We are excited to partner with expertise in the community and at K-State,” she said of the project. “The district’s hope is that our students will be positively influenced with new skills and activities related to their personal and family nutrition and physical activity habits. We believe the students’ contact with community members and K-State personnel will also enhance their ability to work with others.”
The four-year project will include one year of planning and pilot testing; two years of conducting the experiment, with half of the schools getting a garden and the other half not, through random assignment; and the final year will involve analyzing the project and evaluating its effectiveness, with the hope of creating a model of how a school garden can work and a curriculum for an after-school gardening program. Fourth- and fifth-graders at the schools chosen to receive a garden can participate in the club, with at least 40 students will be needed from each school.
“Physical activity and good nutrition are essential elements to prevent chronic disease and obesity,” Shoemaker said. “Gardening can help meet the moderate-intensity physical activity recommendations, as well as offer fresh, nutritious produce for good nutrition habits.”
Shoemaker is the principal investigator on the National Research Institute Human Nutrition and Obesity Project grant. Co-principal investigators include David Dzewaltowski, professor of kinesiology; Ted Carey, professor of horticulture, forestry and recreation resources; and George Milliken, professor of statistics, all of K-State. Other collaborators are Judith Johnston, University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita, and Greg Welk, Iowa State University.
Shoemaker, whose research interests revolve around gardening for health, has been at K-State since 2001. She earned her bachelor’s from Michigan State University in 1978; master’s from K-State in 1982; and doctorate from Michigan State in 1990.