Thursday, January 6, 2011

How Do You Win the War On Childhood Obesity? Plant A Vegetable Garden With Your Kids


Childhood obesity is now the nation's disease—an ailment crippling the body politic. The long-term health effects are well-established and include early onset diabetes and premature hip and joint problems. American children are prematurely aging, suffering from sicknesses that were once the provenance of older adults. Old has become the new young.

The lineup of culprits includes school vending machines, latchkey children, the endangered home-cooked meal, vanishing physical-education classes, fried everything, supersized portions, sedentary hours spent zoned out in front of the computer screen, nutritional ignorance, misleading labeling and more. But whatever and whoever is to blame, it is surely not kids. We cannot expect children to make the right food choices when healthy foods are out of reach and nutrition-smart role models are not in evidence.

The saddest thing about childhood obesity is that it's unnecessary. It's inexcusable that in the breadbasket of the world American children are eating so much lousy food. First lady Michelle Obama's anti-obesity initiative, "Let's Move," represents a  welcome beginning to what will have to become a nutritional revolution.

As an agriculturist and horticulturist, I believe that the answer is simple. As parents, educators, nutritionists and marketers, we have to imbue our children with the love of—and consumption of—the most beneficial food for growing bodies. This means fresh vegetables and fruits, whether store-bought or home-grown.

As kids, we imitate our elders, who teach most effectively by example. Right now, adults aren't doing a good job of modeling good behavior. According to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, just 26% of adults have three or more servings of vegetables a day, a number that includes those who deem a tomato slice or lettuce on a burger as a "vegetable serving." In other words, roughly 80% of U.S. adults scarcely eat any vegetables at all.

Liking vegetables is not a given: Every food other than breast milk is an acquired taste. But children can easily learn to enjoy eating their greens. It's simply a matter of education and familiarity—as in "family." 

Children will happily eat squash, artichoke or broccoli, to the delight of the parents who taught them to do so. As for fruits, children can gobble them up, but like vegetables, they must be at the ready, at least as available as all the junky alternatives. Kids imitate their elders, who teach most effectively by example.

In our research at Atlee Burpee, we have found that kids who grow vegetables alongside their parents eat them regularly and with gusto. Peas, green beans and raw carrots—the very vegetables that kids are told to eat, their parents' admonishing fingers wagging—are particular favorites.

While not all American families have the benefit of a sun-filled backyard for a vegetable garden, companies like Burpee offer many vegetable seeds and plants that you can grow easily in containers. You can grow beets, carrots, sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts, which can be plucked from the stalk well into winter.

Eighteen years ago, as president of the American Horticultural Society, I initiated a children's gardening program. Our annual symposium drew thousands of educators and community gardeners with the goal of educating and inspiring children to grow gardens in their school and neighborhoods. The results were heartening: Thousands of churches, schools and community centers sprouted new gardens.

Yet no single institution is sufficient; fighting a problem of this sort requires a multifaceted effort. Churches could do much more to inspire families to grow vegetables. Public and private botanical and community gardening groups should augment efforts to lure neighbors into their educational demonstration gardens. Most families, whether in the city or suburbs, can plant at least a "starter garden"—involving pre-teen children in the planting, tending and harvesting.

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About our contributor: George Ball is a past president of the American Horticultural Society (AHS) and the current chairman and CEO of W. Atlee Burpee & Co, the largest, most progressive garden seed company in the United States. This piece originally appeared on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal and was reprinted with permission by Mr. Ball. For more information on gardening with children, visit Burpee's Kid's Gardening page.

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  1. Thanks so much for posting! All of us at Burpee hope the article inspires a happy and healthy New Year. Best to you and your readers in 2011.

    Kristin G.

  2. @Kristin: Truly my pleasure! I really did enjoy this article and it strengthens my resolve to "dig in" to our container garden this year. My girls LOVE to garden and, despite the bugs, I'm learning to love it, too—especially if it inspires them to totally heart their veggies. Thanks so much for bringing this story to MyBrownBaby!

  3. We had a garden at our old place when the kids were much younger and grew tomatoes, zucchini, okra, a variety of greens, banana peppers - you know the easy to grow stuff and funny now that we have a bigger backyard we have yet to plant a garden. We have cleared a spot in the backyard to start a garden at our new home but *sigh* have yet to plant one and we've lived here for well over 6 years. Thanks for the inspiration.

  4. With an upcoming move into a new apartment, the new knowledge of the ability to grow yummy veggies in containers is music to my eyes! My daughter loves to garden and tend to plants, and I grew up with a garden in my backyard. I have been itching to get one started. We will surely be growing in this new year!

  5. @3Boys: Oh goodness, you HAVE to get back to it. Even if it's just a few containers out on the back patio. My girls adore it. We should make a pinky swear to get our garden going this year!

    @Barbara: YES! Container gardens are FANTASTIC. We moved from a really fertile backyard in NJ to the red clay soil of GA, and I didn't know HOW to handle gardening here until a friend of mine suggested containers. We've grown tomatoes, peppers, habaneros, onions, strawberries, rosemary, thyme, oregano, basil, sage, lemon sage, mint and a bunch of beautiful flowers for cutting in our container garden out on the deck. It smells delicious out there, and looks REALLY pretty. I'll have to post some pictures! Go for it!

  6. Yes, yes, post pictures girl. I've been flipping through every decor mag I come in contact with taking in ideas for our new space. You can help me get an idea of the perfect space/way/style to grow veggies and ohhhh yes, flowers too. =)

  7. I live in NYC and honestly don't know how I would go about gardening. BUT we do get our fruits in a lot (well at least, my son does because I'm allergic to fruits). Vegetables are a bit more tricky, though. The kid can't get enough of carrots and corn, sometimes broccoli, but that's about it. Then since I'm in grad school and he's with a sitter, I tend to get lazy about packing him healthy snacks from time to time. And he ends up eating what I consider to be crap. Sigh.

    BUT... thanks for this article. Reading all these health issues is just what I needed to whip my butt back in shape and force me to pack those healthy snacks again. And encourage my son to try out new veggies. "Old has become the new young." So frightening.

  8. I love this article...this is near and dear to my heart. I have said from the beginning that if you start early with kids, teaching them the importance of making healthier choices at an earlier age this will in hopes be carried over in their adults years.

    My children and I over @ Raising Chefs Dot Com will be introducing this year our plans to start our own veggie and herb garden. This is something I've been wanted to do for a long time and now that we have a place of our own it's becoming our reality. Thanks again for sharing this. I just love your site so much...Happy New Year!!!

  9. Obesity now affects 1 in 6 children and adolescents in the United States. One study showed that children who became obese as early as age 2 were more likely to be obese as adults. Our online editing services - is here at your services when it comes to writing about obesity and its prevention.


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