Growing a Strong Foundation for Health Literacy
By Luisa Leme
St. Louis, Missouri
In 2006, students in the Maplewood-Richmond Heights School District in suburban St. Louis had the same health issues as students in many school districts, starting with poor nutrition and obesity. And as in other school districts, school staff attributed these problems, in large part, to a lack of access to the key elements of a healthy diet at home.
"Kids didn’t have access to fresh vegetables because parents who were overworked and overstressed were doing the fast-food thing more often," said Debie Gibson, the district’s Early Childhood Center nurse. "The students also didn’t have any idea where fresh vegetables came from or why they needed to be part of a healthy diet."
In response to a suggestion from the school to start a garden for the kids, Gibson piloted a "Seed to Table" project as a three-week activity for preschool classes. The project involved the children in every aspect of planting a garden, including preparing the beds, weeding, watering, and harvesting. In the process, the preschool students learned about life cycles within the garden and the nutritional value of plants. Soon they could make connections between the plants they were growing and their own bodies. Gibson then started to work with teachers to integrate garden activities into the curriculum.
That was in 2006. The three weeks turned into months as the program continued. In 2008, funding from Health Literacy Missouri expanded the garden activities to other elementary and middle schools in the district as a demonstration project. Seed-to-Table integrated health lessons into fourth, fifth, and eighth-grade curricula and introduced new approaches to teaching health by using the garden as a context.
The program also introduced health themes and messages into math and physical education classes. Seed-to-Table coordinators and graduate students from St. Louis University who were involved in the demonstration project worked with teachers to incorporate these materials into the school curriculum.
The training that teachers went through increased their awareness of what health literacy is and how it affects people. They also came to realize that teaching subjects such as math using health-related materials such as nutritional labels would help students increase both their math and health literacy skills. David Pole, the Deputy Director of the Area Health Education Center program at Saint Louis University School of Medicine, is a district parent who helped to build the demonstration project. He recalls the moment when the teachers in the district saw that the program wasn’t just about plants. "There was an ‘Aha!’ moment," he said. "Teachers understood that this was not nutrition, it was health, science, math… that health literacy is across the board."
Incorporating health literacy into the classroom can have many positive results besides raising student’s awareness of health issues. Pole says that including younger kids helps build reading and other basic skills at a very young age to better prepare children for elementary and middle school.
According to its coordinators, the first year of the demonstration project has improved students’ nutrition choices and raised awareness about health in the community. As the demonstration project moves into its second year this fall, students are having more learning opportunities in the garden through formal lessons at outdoor classrooms that were built during the summer.
Seed-to-Table has become a long-term project in Maplewood Richmond Heights School District. "We are working all together now," says Gibson, who is Seed-to-Table director. In addition to the many other opportunities that the garden project has created, kids are also trying foods that are new to them. "There are many things that we grow that kids have never seen, much less never eaten. But 99 percent of the time they try out and eat what we grow," Gibson said.
What started as a three-week garden project is thus providing children with enriching experiences and health literacy skills that can form a solid foundation for healthy lifestyle choices throughout adulthood.
These photos show children working with Debie Gibson at the Seed-to-Table project in St. Louis, Missouri.
Luisa Leme is a Communications Specialist in the Health Communication Research Laboratory at Washington University in St. Louis, part of the St. Louis Collaborative in Health Literacy Missouri.
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