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Garden-based nutrition education in Santa Maria, CA

The Issue

Though the percentage of schools with gardens is growing nationwide, schools with higher percentages of students from low-income families are less likely to have school gardens. Robert Bruce Elementary in Santa Maria has a high percentage of low-income students (96.7% qualified for the Free and Reduced School Meals Program). Following national trends, this school did not have access to a school garden, and 51.2% of its 5th grade students were found to need improvement in aerobic capacity on the CA Physical Fitness Report, as opposed to 35.1% of 5th graders in the county. Within its school district, this school was often referred to as the “forgotten school” in terms of school beautification.

What Has ANR Done?

UC CalFresh Nutrition Education Program (NEP) staff in San Luis Obispo/Santa Barbara (SLO/SB) Counties worked with the principal and several teachers at the school to identify priorities for improving student health, including the creation and maintenance of a school garden. Using donated equipment and some purchased materials, the work group (including the school principal, teachers, parent volunteers, students, and UC CalFresh educators) turned an empty dirt patch at the back of the school into a school garden for hands-on, garden-based educational lessons. Throughout the year, NEP supported garden expansion alongside teachers and students; conducted over 40 train-the-trainer, garden-enhanced nutrition education lessons; and hosted a full-day workshop with 10 district educators. Produce harvested from the garden was used in classroom demonstrations and sent home with families along with nutrition information and recipes. The school won a beautification award, which led to the installation of white picket fencing around the garden beds, school murals, and a tool shed. In addition, several local businesses responded to NEP requests for community support with in-kind donations.

The Payoff

Increasing educational opportunities and improving student learning

All responding teachers agreed that the school garden positively impacted their students’ learning. Eight teachers reported conducting learning activities in the garden on their own without UC CalFresh Educators for periods of 4 hours to several times a week. It is well documented that children who have a hand in growing food develop and sustain 1) a more positive perception of fruits and vegetables, and 2) an increased understanding of the relationship between food and health. School gardens have been shown to positively impact students’ fruit and vegetable consumption, while encouraging them to be physically active.


Supporting Unit: Santa Barbara County

Shannon Klisch, MPH, Community Education Supervisor II, UC CalFresh Nutrition Education, 805-781-5951, sklisch@ucanr.edu
Katherine E. Soule, Ph.D., Youth, Families, & Communities Advisor, San Luis Obispo & Santa Barbara Counties