Teaching a Nation to Eat Healthy Starts With a Small Seed

GrowingGreat, a school garden initiative, is in increasing demand.

(Photo: Karen Parkhouse/Thousand Words Imagery).

While at least one recent study has indicated that, when it comes to eating, children are influenced by a whole host of factors, what their parents eat clearly comes into play.

So you’d think getting everyone on board to try to reduce the country’s skyrocketing child obesity rates in any way possible would be a slam dunk.

That was the reasoning behind Marika Bergsund’s decision to launch GrowingGreat, a nonprofit school garden and nutrition education organization, in Manhattan Beach in 1999. As the program expanded to other local schools, she began to notice that while the children were learning about where their food comes from and connecting to the earth while working the school garden, they weren’t necessarily applying that knowledge to adopt healthy-eating habits in the cafeteria or at home.

When Bergsund, combined with a focus group of parents, asked the schools’ food service director what could be done, the disappointing response was, “That’s the best food for them...and that’s all they really want to eat.”

(Photo: Karen Parkhouse/Thousand Words Imagery)

Faced with this roadblock, Bergsund realized she needed to take a step back and educate not just the kids about how to make healthy food choices and choosing whole foods, but also their parents.

Determined to continue her crusade, she joined forces with nutrition experts Peggy Curry and Lori Sherman and added a standards-based nutrition curriculum to the program.

From there the program has expanded to nearly 40 schools throughout Los Angeles, reaching some 16,500 students annually, and schools across the country have expressed an interest in adopting—or adapting—it.

As a result, says Sarah Gelb, Executive Director of GrowingGreat, “We are working on a web-based model to train parents and volunteers in both nutrition and gardens to deliver our message to the classroom and the gardens. Last year we piloted a program at a school in Las Vegas, and the plus select others will be piloting the web model this year. Then hopefully we’ll be able to launch it in 2012. What we ultimately want is a program that’s sustainable, scalable, and easy to implement anywhere.”

(Photo: GrowingGreat)

Interest from some high-profile people along the way has been a boon, too.

Gelb goes on, “In 2007 GrowingGreat was approached by musician Jack Johnson and his Kakua Foundation as he wanted to take the GrowingGreat curriculum and tailor it to Hawaiian culture. He has been a wonderful believer in us—we received a large grant from the Johnson Ohana Charitable Foundation two years ago and we’re finishing up our third year.”

Closer to GrowingGreat’s original turf, support has come in the form of Zoe Nathan and Josh Loeb, owners of Huckleberry Café, Rustic Canyon, and Sweet Rose Creamery, who are donating several lots to an online auction currently being held in aid of GrowingGreat.

One of the schools to benefit from the GrowingGreat program is Santa Monica’s Grant Elementary, right on the duo’s patch. Construction on the school’s garden has already begun, and the kids will start planting seeds and receiving nutrition lessons next month.

(Photo: Sarah Gelb)

Jennifer Raymond, one of the auction’s organizers, who is also a parent of two children at the school, has witnessed the effects of GrowingGreat firsthand: “What started out as a very small local event has turned into something much bigger. We’ve had tremendous support from the community—not just in terms of what Zoe and Josh are doing but from other local companies helping with buildout of the gardens. It’s a community exercise that has grown and grown.”

Raymond continues: “I’m also a public health professional and am close to the fact that obesity is a big problem in our country and getting worse and worse for children. I think the more we can get back to teaching them early on that the choices we make about what we eat on a day-to-day basis matter, the better off we’ll all be. Obviously, the parents are critical in helping children make the right choices too, which is another reason we like the GrowingGreat program: the kids get to take home lots of educational material, which also provides learning and guidance for the parents.”

“If we can get kids asking their parents for things they might not have before, that can have a huge impact over time,” says Raymond.

And if you don’t believe us, just ask the mom whose fifth grader, after years of skipping breakfast, suddenly requested unsweetened yogurt with whole grain unsweetened cereal one morning!


Through September 30, some of the Los Angeles area’s most ingredient-obsessed restaurants and socially responsible wineries are teaming up for a Foodie Extravaganza fundraising auction for GrowingGreat. Among the donations are a two-night stay at the Just Inn in Paso Robles and an ice cream party with Sweet Rose Creamery. In addition, Huckleberry is hosting a four-course meal with wine pairings on September 26.

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