Planting the Seeds of Wellness

Have you seen the Disney Pixar movie Wall-E? When this movie started showing, the students in my classroom were as enthusiastic about that tiny robot as current teenagers about the Roomba®. They thought the chubby, screen-addicted kids were hilarious, and they believed that the garbage situation was truly unrealistic. As 2022 cruises forward, it feels like the movie was an animated warning. More than two years ago, young climate activist Greta Thunberg sent the message “we’ll be watching you” to the world leaders at the UN. Today, these words may still feel harsh as we separate recyclables and head over to “the purple monster.” This was a family outing that included the dog just last year. For most, the irony is not lost, with each of these glass getaways, that we are driving CO2 emitting vehicles to recycle because the monster lives in a densely trafficked, non-bicycle-friendly area. More and more, simple comforts like the choice of transportation, are becoming no laughing matter as more outcomes of isolation are discovered. Therefore, it is important to look at the impact that COVID-19 has made on the Body Mass Index (BMI) of children, positive effects of gardening on kids, and an individual’s ability to increase food security in Siouxland’s youth.

“During the pandemic, children and adolescents spent more time than usual away from structured school settings, and families who were already disproportionately affected by obesity risk factors might have had additional disruptions in income, food, and other social determinants of health.” According to a 432,302-person cohort study done by Lange et al for the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Body Mass Index (BMI, kg/m2) in children and adolescents ages 2-19 nearly doubled. Among those studied, children ages 6-11 had the largest increase in their rate of BMI change. As students stayed at home in a non-pharmaceutical intervention to decrease the spread of COVID-19, researchers found that several factors were possible causes for the incremental weight gain. One such factor was the lack of opportunities for physical activity. According to the CDC study, several other variables included increased screen time, lack of access to nutrient-dense food, family income disturbances, and irregular mealtimes. 

Our educational system checks a lot of these boxes. The nutrition programs from The Iowa Department of Education and Pick a Better SnackTM focus on quality and quantity of food, as well as meals. Likewise, Physical and Health Education classes are great sources for movement and nutritional knowledge for kids. Content areas are no longer “sit and get” information zones. Students are on the move to and from school, between classes, and, of course, during recess. Extracurricular programs are often overlooked when it comes to measurable effort produced. Many calories are burned during show choir rehearsals, marching band maneuvers, and athletic activities. Let us not forget the National Honors Society and Student Council, they rock the signage around school. If there is a method to keep kids engaged and learning in a fun, physical way, teachers, coaches, and directors will do their best to find it. 

In fact, several schools in Siouxland have gone further than just the cafeteria and the classroom. They have school gardens. The green spaces at Clark Early Childhood Center, Liberty, Unity, Sunnyside, Riverside, Spaulding Park, Perry Creek, Morningside, and Leeds Elementary Schools are making a commitment to healthy student academic, environmental, and community lifestyles. The journey does not stop at the lower grades. The Sioux City Schools Career Academy has an agriculture pathway that is starting to thrive. These schools are vital resources for physical activity stimulating healthy eating behaviors, and the ecosystem. According to the School Garden Network, “A school garden is a perfect tool to provide hands-on learning experiences for any academic subject.” Although Science is the most common subject linked to the garden for obvious reasons, educators and support staff have linked their learning laboratory to national, state, and local standards with a garden curriculum for every season. 

Along the garden path, students take stops for Language Arts, History, Math, Art, Physical Education, and Technology. Here, young scholars begin life lessons on working cooperatively, building community, self-esteem, pride, and patience. Many lessons focus around being garden detectives and problem solvers. There is sweat equity in gardening. As evidenced by the outcomes from the CDC study, a healthy lifestyle is not only made of food choices. The social-emotional factors matter in conjunction with decreasing screen time and increasing engaged physical activity. Developmental well-being multiplies exponentially when youth are offered the chance to explore nature in respectful ways.

Crystalizing moments as a teacher are very vivid. One of my firsts happened outside Chicago on the way to a cadaver lab field trip. It was the first time a high schooler saw a cow, in real life. Two big things happened that day. One, he saw a cow, a real cow, and two, I gained more perspective. In my youthful foolishness, I did not realize that some students did not leave the relative area of their birth. I know now, urban areas have limited green spaces, therefore strong gardening programs are needed to ensure positive connections and appreciation for nature into adulthood. Here in Sioux City, there are several ways to do just that. Not only are there the school gardens, Launchpad, the natural beauty of the Riverfront, the Marilyn Engle Teaching Garden, the Agape Garden, and the Dorothy Pecaut Nature Center, but there is also Up from the Earth (UFTE). 

As the growing season will soon be upon us, UFTE reaches out once again with the definition of food insecurity: “The state of being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food.” In the study, lack of access to nutrient dense food was one factor that increased a child’s likelihood to have a higher BMI. Up from the Earth proposes the curiosity and pride of growing fruits and vegetables, and/or the more readily available, the more motivated a youth will be to taste them, which often leads to more positive lifestyle and eating behaviors. Those who follow UFTE know that UFTE is a voluntary system for connecting home gardeners who PLANT, GROW, and SHARE produce to people in need. Volunteers distribute excess fruits and veggies to those in need through existing food pantries. 

Are you interested in making a difference in your community, school, or in your own backyard? Would you like more information about growing seedlings, taking the next steps, or where to donate? We would love your help to increase food security in Siouxland’s youth.

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By Lisa Cox, a NATABOC Certified Athletic Trainer and a former high school Health and Physical Education teacher who continues to seek understanding of how food insecurity impacts students. She is an active ISU Master Gardener and Delta Kappa Gamma and Sioux City Garden Club member.

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