Program Harvests Healthy Food Choices

By Laura L. Acosta

UTEP News Service

Three new community garden projects are helping children develop their green thumbs while teaching them valuable lessons about nutrition, physical activity and volunteerism.

Thenral Mangadu, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Public Health Sciences at The University of Texas at El Paso, is looking at the impact that the gardens are having on the well-being of their caretakers through a $48,000 grant from the Paso del Norte Health Foundation.Community garden projects are helping children develop their green thumbs while teaching them valuable lessons about nutrition, physical activity and volunteerism. Community garden projects are helping children develop their green thumbs while teaching them valuable lessons about nutrition, physical activity and volunteerism.

The gardens are a pilot project funded by the foundation’s Healthy Eating Active Living (H.E.A.L.) grant, which makes it possible for local children to build gardens, plant seeds, and harvest fruits and vegetables.

“They are becoming involved with the regional food system,” said Michael Kelly, the foundation’s program officer. “The Paso del Norte Health Foundation thinks that when children grow and prepare food, they are more likely to try it. Some children taste new and different vegetables for the first time.”

Since October, Mangadu has been evaluating the three community garden projects that include a garden located at El Paso County’s Ascarate Park and two gardens established by La Semilla Food Center at Loma Linda Elementary School in Anthony, N.M., and at Sierra Middle School in Las Cruces, N.M. The City of El Paso has plans to develop a community garden at Vista Del Valle Park.  

Mangadu and her team will measure the benefits of the projects in relation to nutrition, physical activity and social support for individuals, families and the communities involved.

“We have high obesity rates, and we are looking at how these gardens can improve the health of our communities through better eating habits, physical activity and also developing a social network,” Mangadu said. “We also intend to examine the ownership the communities will have in these gardens.”

In Las Cruces, participants range in age from kindergarten to middle school. Approximately 90 students are helping to plant and harvest herbs, tomatoes, carrots, chilies, eggplant and sweet potatoes.

Volunteers helped the children strengthen garden beds, build a sprinkler system and recycle tires into planters where they grow kale, cilantro and herbs. The La Semilla garden projects in New Mexico are in sync with both schools’ science curriculums.

“The kids learn about seeds, they participate in food tasting, and they create drawings about what they learned,” Mangadu said.   

At Ascarate Park, youth from the Juvenile Probation Department and the Juvenile Detention Center work with a master gardener from the county’s parks and recreation department two to three times a week at the community garden.

Participants get a series of 10 lessons, each with a message about nutrition, said Irma Carrillo, H.E.A.L. planning coordinator for El Paso County.

Lessons focus on topics such as how to prepare soil to grow fruits and vegetables in a desert environment.  

“This partnership allows us to create this community garden where youth that are in various levels of interaction with the justice system come and learn gardening skills and learn basic information on nutrition and the benefits of fruits and vegetables for their well-being,” Carrillo said.

According to Carrillo, UTEP’s evaluation of the project provides an outside perspective that will allow the county to see what is working so far and what barriers and challenges it needs to overcome for the future success of the program. 

“It will benefit us because it will give us a good comprehensive overview of how the project is being implemented,” Carrillo said. 

With the help of two research assistants from the UTEP College of Health Sciences Master of Public Health program and the Interdisciplinary Health Sciences Ph.D. program, Mangadu will use standardized surveys and individual interviews with participants to get their feedback about the program. She also will organize focus groups with community members, parents, students and master gardeners. Younger children will submit drawings of what they learned from working in the gardens, instead of answering survey questions.

“We’ll be reporting on multiple outcomes at multiple levels,” Mangadu said. “Did they learn to eat properly? Are the families eating better? Are they planting some vegetables at home? Are the kids asking to include a variety of vegetables in their meals? Those are some of the things we’re looking at.”

Mangadu expects to provide the foundation a report with her findings by August.

So far the feedback that she has received has been positive. One parent shared that her daughter, who is a picky eater, ate an apple for the first time. Another parent said her daughter tried some new vegetables through the program and then requested that her mother cook them for her.

Evaluation results will be used for quality improvement, to document impacts, and to guide decision making by the Paso del Norte Health Foundation, Kelly said.

“To us it’s a complement to the kind of hands-on learning that we’re doing,” Carillo said. “We interact with all the participants on a program level, but the UTEP evaluators will be basically asking them what they think about the program, so we’ll get that feedback.”

The University’s participation comes under the Center for Interdisciplinary Health Research and Evaluation (CIHRE), which fosters collaboration with community-based organizations by providing evaluations of health-related grants from foundations and federal and state agencies to help improve the prevention and treatment outcomes of chronic and infectious diseases among border populations.

“All these partnerships are important because we need to establish regionally sensitive community and academic partnerships within our border communities, if we are all to work together to improve our local communities’ health,” Mangadu said.