School gardens limited in improving children’s fruit and veg intake

Little evidence exists to suggest that school gardening initiatives alone improve children’s fruit and vegetable intake, research led by an academic at Leeds Metropolitan University has concluded.

Dr Meaghan Christian, a researcher in the Institute for Health & Wellbeing at Leeds Met – which will become Leeds Beckett University on 22 September -undertook two randomised controlled trials of primary school children aged 8-11 from eight London boroughs using the Royal Horticultural Society’s (RHS) Campaign for School Gardening, to discover whether school gardening initiatives had any effect on a change in fruit and vegetable intake amongst the participating pupils. 

The study, published in the latest issue of the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity Public Health Research concludes that school gardening alone cannot improve fruit and vegetable intake and highlights the need for more sophisticated and accurate tools to evaluate diet in children. 

Speaking about the findings, Dr Christian said: “Children’s fruit and vegetable intake in the UK is low and changing that intake can prove challenging. There is a suggestion that gardening in schools might be a vehicle for facilitating additional fruit and vegetable intake.

“For school gardening to improve children’s fruit and vegetable intake however, it needs to be successfully integrated into the school curriculum and environment. The results from this study suggest using a holistic approach and incorporating nutrition education or cooking along with parental involvement would be more likely to achieve higher consumption levels and increase children’s knowledge.”

Findings from the study also showed that eating a family meal together, cutting up fruit and vegetables, and parental modelling of fruit and vegetable intakes were all associated with higher intakes of fruit and vegetables in children. 

The research study is the first to use clustered randomised controlled trials (RCTs) of a gardening intervention to evaluate the impact of school gardening.  A 24-hour food diary [the Child and Diet Evaluation Tool (CADET)] collected information about dietary intake, whilst questionnaires measured children’s knowledge and attitudes towards fruit and vegetables. Changes in fruit and vegetable intake were analysed using a random effects model, based on intention to treat.

Previous research by Dr Christian demonstrated that eating meals together as a family, even if only twice a week, boosts children’s daily fruit and vegetable intake to near the recommended five a day.

The study of primary school-aged children, funded by the National Institute for Health Research Public Health Research (NIHR PHR) Programme, also suggested parental consumption of fruit and vegetables and cutting up portions of these foods boosted children’s intake.

Dr Meaghan Christian’s research interest is in dietary assessment and the development of nutrition promoting interventions in primary school-aged children and adolescents.  

Image: Dollar Photo Club

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