- The Texas Sprouts program, spanning an entire school year across 16 low-income schools, provided practical learning about gardening, nutrition, and cooking. This led to a significant decrease in the risk of children developing pre-diabetes and diabetes, as seen in reduced blood sugar levels and harmful cholesterol.
- The program aimed to influence dietary habits by educating children about their food sources and how it’s grown and cooked. Further, parents of these children also participated in similar classes, leading to a concerted effort in promoting healthier eating habits.
- Classes covered a wide range of topics, including gardening and cooking principles, kitchen safety, understanding dietary fiber, food groups, and maintaining a healthy diet on the go. This comprehensive teaching approach was seen as a major contributing factor to the program’s success.
- Post-program assessments revealed significant reductions in children’s blood sugar levels and ‘bad’ cholesterol. However, the program did not lead to changes in insulin levels, insulin resistance, or blood lipid levels.
- Lastly, the program underlines the potential long-term impact of garden-based interventions in shaping healthier eating habits, with a particular emphasis on increased vegetable intake. However, program advocates also note that such changes in lifestyle habits take time, and the effects may not be immediate.
An innovative academic program based in Texas has shown that incorporating gardening and cooking lessons into the curriculum notably enhances the health status of children, especially within underprivileged areas.
The Texas Sprouts Program: An Overview
The initiative, known as “Texas Sprouts,” spanned an entire school year and involved practical learning about gardening, nutrition, and kitchen processes for children in 16 low-income schools. The educational program was not confined to the students but extended to their parents, offering them similar classes. These concerted efforts led to a significant decline in the potential risk of the students becoming pre-diabetic and diabetic as reflected by decreased blood sugar levels and a decrease in the levels of harmful cholesterol.
The Rationale Behind the Program
Jaimie Davis, an associate professor of pediatrics explains the motivation for designing this program. She mentions that certain dietary habits, such as consuming sugar-laden beverages, have been linked to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes among all age groups, including kids. Thus, the program was intended to impact dietary habits by teaching kids about their food sources and methods of growing and cooking with it. According to Davis, if children gain “ownership and autonomy over what they eat, they are more likely to have increased preference for that food and this preference can last a lifetime.”
The Texas Sprouts Program: Execution
In essence, this involved children aged 9 to 13 studying in Austin’s elementary schools. Each year, from 2016 through to 2019, participating schools were selected randomly to either initiate the nine-month long Texas Sprouts program immediately or postpone it to the next academic cycle.
During the school year, students in the program were provided with 18 one-hour classes, roughly amounting to two lessons every month, while their parents received one class for nine consecutive months.
Scope of the Program
The classes conducted encompassed a variety of topics: gardening/planting rules in an outdoor quarter-acre area, kitchen safety, distinguishing between processed and natural food, analyzing the pros and cons of sugary drinks, understanding dietary fiber, food groups, portions, vegetables, fruits and water, as well as guidance on maintaining a healthy diet in school and on the go.
The Impact of the Program on Child Health
Following the program, blood samples collected from nearly 700 children, almost 500 of whom were Hispanic, were analyzed. Approximately 450 of those children resided in low-income households, as inferred from their eligibility for a free or discounted school meal plan.
On comparing children yet to participate in the program against those who had completed it, a significant reduction in blood sugar levels was observed among the latter set of children. Clinicians reported a decrease in HbA1c level by 0.02% over three months. Furthermore, students who actively participated in the gardening/cooking program exhibited a reduction in LDL cholesterol levels, often referred to as ‘bad’ cholesterol, by 6.4 mg/dL. However, the study did not find any significant correlation between the program and any changes in insulin levels, insulin resistance, or blood lipid levels.
Long-Term Impact and Implications of the Program
Davis expressed optimism for the effectiveness of garden-based interventions for long-lasting dietary changes. She hopes that it will lead to a sustained fruit and vegetable intake among the kids through their adolescence and adulthood.
Davis also pointed out a clear take-home message – empowering children with knowledge and skills to grow and prepare their own vegetables can potentially increase intake of vegetables, which equates to reducing disease risks.
Connie Diekman, another proponent of the Texas Sprouts initiative, agreed with this view and expressed her desire to see more schools implementing similar programs. Diekman believes that getting children to experiment with different kinds of food together with their friends is an excellent way to instill healthier eating habits.
However, she also emphasizes that program outcomes may not be immediate and that the changes in health parameters, akin to changes in behavior, will take time. In essence, the Texas Sprouts program can serve as the foundation for developing healthier habits that will gradually lead to improved lifestyles.
The academic community took interest in these findings, leading to the publication of the report in a prominent journal.