Nutrition and the role of school gardens in complementing school feeding

The number of undernourished people has increased to 821 million (FAO et al., 2019), signalling a rise in world hunger and a reversal of trends following a prolonged decline. Child stunting remains unacceptably high with approximately 151 million children affected and 51 million children wasted. About 2 billion people lack the key micronutrients they need for physical and mental development such as iron and vitamin A. More than one in eight adults are obese - over 672 million people worldwide - while three out of four deaths are caused by non-communicable, diet-related diseases (e.g. diabetes, hypertension), particularly in emerging economies and in low- to middle-income countries.

Clearly, current agriculture and food systems are failing to deliver on positive nutrition (and environmental) outcomes, and the agriculture sector is increasingly under pressure to better deliver on nutrition objectives. A small part of that debate on nutrition-sensitive agriculture mentions the role of bio-fortification, which involves breeding new varieties of crops. Others promote diversification of agriculture and the need to ensure that nutrition outcomes accrue in all agriculture programmes through the deliberate inclusion of nutrition outcomes in the impact pathways and value chains for agriculture. It is believed that new ways of approaching agriculture, including biodiverse and agroecological approaches to gardening, smallholder diversification, and agroforestry can provide the level of dietary diversity needed to reduce malnutrition, by promoting a more diverse range of crops, tree species, and protein (livestock, legumes) options. The permaculture movement, the agroecology, and bio-intensive garden (BIG) movements have supported more permanent, structured, and diverse forms of agriculture. School gardens have also proven to be an excellent mechanism to promote nutrition-sensitive agriculture when integrated with nutrition education (Chapter 3) and especially if agroecological approaches are used for ensuring safe food, free of residues.

School feeding programmes receive considerably more attention as mechanisms to address childhood level malnutrition. A recent analysis by the World Bank (WB), World Food Programme (WFP), and the Partnership for Child Development identified that, today, most countries are seeking to provide food, in some way and on some scale, to its schoolchildren (Bundy et al., 2009). School gardening has often not been explicitly mentioned as an intervention but is increasingly being recognized as having a supporting role (Chapter 2). School health and nutrition (SHN) provides a useful platform for the inclusion of school gardens and for eventual convergence with the health and nutrition sectors.

School gardens are usually not linked with school feeding programmes, which is primarily the result of structural problems associated with the fact that school gardens are considered the mandate for Department of Agriculture with feeding being relegated to Department of Education and the rest of the services a responsibility of the health sectors. Increasingly, convergence efforts are being advocated which look at these different initiatives to seek complementarities and synergies such as using the school garden as a platform for more practical nutrition education as well as production of specific nutrient-rich foods that might supplement school meals (Chapter 4). The Department of Education in the Philippines has successfully led the Integrated School Nutrition Model (ISNM), which is currently being institutionalized and mainstreamed throughout the country (Box 1.3 and Chapter 4).3

More holistic and integrated school garden approaches including links to school meals and healthy eating are also receiving increasing attention in the industrialized world (Box 1.4).


The Philippines ISNM was an action research project undertaken in the Philippines with the Department of Education, developed and tested with the support of the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Canada. The ISNM consisted of 3 components: a bio-intensive school garden; nutrition education for children and parents; and supplementary school feeding with indigenous nutrient-rich vegetables from the school garden as well as iron-fortified rice. Fifteen menus with indigenous vegetables were developed, lab-tested, and used in the school feeding programme. Serving vegetables produced in the school garden resulted in better nutrition while lowering feeding costs. Results also highlighted improvements on nutrition knowledge, attitudes, and practices among children and parents. Overall, the ISNM resulted in:

  • • Enhanced garden productivity and functionality
  • • Improved year-round availability of a diverse range of nutrient-rich indigenous vegetables with less reliance on inputs and easier day-to-day maintenance
  • • Improved nutritional status of schoolchildren through the use of standardized recipes using indigenous vegetables and iron-fortified rice in school feeding
  • • Conservation and management and dissemination of indigenous vegetables
  • • Improved knowledge and attitude towards nutrition and gardening through education.

Source: International Institute of Rural Reconstruction


The Centre for Ecoliteracy, a non-profit organization, was established in 1995 by a group of committed people who wanted to change how we normally understand education and transform it into having social and sustainable impact. The centre is dedicated to nourishing education for sustainable living and creates learning material to further ecological teaching and training including guidelines to classroom discussions, integration of school meals, and development of school garden cookbooks. Systems thinking is an essential part of ecoliteracy, and the centre has created numerous resources to foster community, cultivate networks, and understand the ecological system. Material for establishing school gardens is also developed by the centre including guides demonstrating how to establish gardens on all imaginable levels - from the windowsill to large-scale vegetable, fruit, and flower gardens. According to the centre, school gardens are important for understanding systems because it allows children to interact and react on nature while fostering a deeper understanding of relationships in the nature - relationships between climate, seasons, water, soil, insects, plants, bacteria, and people.

One of the biggest achievements of the centre is their California Thursdays, which is a collaboration with a network of public-school districts in California, serving healthy, freshly prepared school meals made from locally grown food. The network includes 3,195 schools across the state, and meals are served to more than 2,000,000 students. The aim is eventually to turn the Thursday meals into an everyday event, ensuring healthy foods to pupils all week.


Promotion of healthy diets and healthy eating habits by influencing behaviours

The increasing prevalence of malnutrition among school-aged children, including the growing obesity challenge and other issues around unhealthy food and diets, and unsustainable food systems, is contributing to increasing advocacy for sustainable diets. Gardens and nutrition education can help foster school environments which promote healthy diets and eating behaviours (FAO, 2010; FAO 2015), which can have a positive influence on children’s health and well-being (Box 1.5). Behavioural change communication is increasingly viewed as an effective tool in bringing about desirable change. Gardens in schools can serve as a powerful mechanism to educate students, teachers, and parents alike. FAO in their guidance for school gardens acknowledges that the school might be torn between the practical and educational objectives of school gardens. Gardening and nutrition education are considered a winning combination. We are also reminded that ‘Children cannot learn how to grow food without actually growing food’ (FAO, 2010). In fact, FAO suggests prioritizing the educational aspects in children’s gardening activities.

Behavioural changes are expected with such approaches. A 2017 evaluation of FoodCorps school gardens by the Tisch Center for Food Education and Policy


Between 2011 and 2013, four universities across the United States worked together to examine the influence of school gardens on children's health and well-being. Washington State University served as the lead institution in collaboration with Cornell University, Iowa State University, and the University of Arkansas to develop the People's Carden School Pilot Project. These universities were chosen because the states they are in offer a wide variety in climate, seasonality, and local food preferences. The research project was primarily funded by the USDA's People's Carden Healthy Cardens, Healthy Youth project and by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), through its Active Living Research programme.

The objective of the project was to increase fruit and vegetable consumption, empower youth in their communities, contribute towards a sustainable environment and food system, and build a national network. Community-based cooperative extension systems were used to develop and implement school community gardens in 47 elementary schools. The gardens were designed to offer students at high-poverty schools an opportunity for improved access to nutritious food through learning about nutrition and agriculture production. Each class in the schools received a raised bed or container garden kit and got access to an educational toolkit, specifically developed for the project, containing a garden implementation guide, lessons, activities, and recipes. The toolkit was put together by experts in nutrition, youth development, and horticulture from the participating universities.

Children's health and well-being in third, fifth, and sixth grade was assessed before and after the garden intervention. Assessment indicators included nutritional knowledge, fruit and vegetable consumption, and physical activity. Schools that had been through the garden intervention were compared to control schools that had not. Though not being statistically significant, the results showed an increase in physical activity and consumption of fruits and vegetables in the schools with the intervention compared to the schools without it. The garden intervention also had a significant influence on children's nutrition and plant science knowledge.

Source: and

(Teachers College, Columbia University) found that schools that provide frequent high-quality opportunities for hands-on nutrition learning for students do have an impact on eating habits: students eat up to 3 times more fruits and vegetables (Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy, 2017). A recent randomized study by Nancy Wells at Cornell University showed that children whose schools provide regular school garden lessons had more access to low-fat vegetables than children without that curriculum did. The study suggests that it does, however, take 35 to 50 hours of nutrition education per year to change children’s preferences over the long term (Wells et al., 2018).

Other studies have also stressed the role of gardens in influencing the food habits of children. Children who grow their own food are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables and to show higher levels of knowledge about nutrition. They are more likely to continue healthy eating habits throughout their lives. Eating fruits and vegetables in childhood has been shown to be an important predictor of higher fruit and vegetable consumption in adulthood, which can prevent or delay chronic disease conditions over a lifetime (Blair, 2009). A Harvard study suggests that school gardens ‘provide students with a real time look at how food is grown’, suggesting that gardens can help shift children’s perception of food enhancing access to health needs. The same study indicates that a long-lasting benefit can accrue on health and wellness of students who might choose healthful eating of nutritious foods. Gardens can serve as a counterweight to poor nutrition and serve as a respite for children (Shafer, 2018).

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