One of the most powerful things I have observed in my career is watching youth learn in new and innovative ways. Over the past three years, I have had the honor of witnessing how you can “let nature be your teacher,” as poet William Wordsworth so eloquently said.
Recently, in Mexico, I spoke with a young girl who proudly showed me what was inside her lunch box. She told me she was learning how to eat healthier at school. Every week, she spent time engaging in nutrition activities like gardening with her teachers. And just that morning, she had asked her mother for fresh vegetables and fruit in her lunch box. I loved that she was sharing these lessons with her mother. Just then, I realized we can start to impact the health and nutrition of children worldwide when we have the right model in place.
The work I observed in Mexico is part of a program called Alianza por el Bienestar de la Niñez (Partnership for Child Wellbeing). By targeting childhood obesity, a growing problem in Mexico and many other countries, this program aims to lay a foundation for children to develop healthy lifestyles. In this case, gardens offer children the lessons as well as the nutritious rewards—and it’s a model that seems to be working well in regions ranging from Mexico and Brazil to the United Kingdom to South Africa and China.
Alianza por el Bienestar de la Niñez is part of a Save the Children initiative supported by the Mondelēz International Foundation to tackle obesity and, in the process, help transform the lives of more than a million children. The Foundation encourages communities to identify local partners such as businesses, government agencies and public health experts to collaborate with schools and other community organizations in the area of nutrition education. This public-private partnership model allows programs to draw on unique social and cultural strengths, and operate autonomously from the Foundation. And while each program runs in a unique way, a common thread many of them have is that gardens operate at the epicenter.
What is it that makes gardening so impactful in teaching today’s youth? According to research, garden-based learning may favorably impact children’s academic performance and fruit and vegetable consumption. Other studies have also shown children’s participation in school gardening activities may enhance attitudes toward healthy foods and dietary behaviors.
Anecdotally, I have seen gardening impact today’s youth in four unique ways:
Understanding the link between soil, plants and healthy diets: In the UK, a Foundation-supported program called “Health for Life” created more than one hundred school gardens, which are cleverly adapted to urban environments. Local innovations include growing potatoes and carrots on roof gardens in large planters—some of them made of stacked tires filled with soil and compost.
Empowering children to learn new skills: In Brazil, 500,000 students in more than 1,000 schools help run gardens as businesses. Benefits include getting exercise, learning basic agricultural skills, and gaining a sense of personal responsibility.
Teaching children how their culture and history are rooted in nature and cuisine: In India and South Africa, Mondelēz works with business partners and teachers to host cooking demonstrations for students using fresh produce from school gardens.
Reinforcing the importance of environmental sustainability: Also in South Africa, children learn to grow food with limited water through methods like aquaponics (where aquaculture and hydroponics meet).
While each program operates independently, the Mondelēz International Foundation creates opportunities for cross-fertilization. In 2015, the Foundation brought teams together from Brazil and South Africa to share what they’ve learned. As a result, the experience of the school gardens you see in São Paulo greatly benefitted the schools in Cape Town, a true example of cross-pollination (no pun intended!). And in my opinion, there is no better way to make an impact in the health and nutrition of children worldwide than by learning from each other. It just means getting our hands in the ground and maybe getting a little soil on us as we find the best way.
Rafael Pérez-Escamilla, PhD, is compensated by the Mondelēz International Foundation for his participation as consultant to this project. His scientific independence was maintained throughout the project and all views expressed in this article are his own.