Nutrition-related diseases like obesity and type 2 diabetes are currently on the uptick among children and teens. Getting kids to eat well is a nearly universal problem, but what if they got to experience growing and cooking food, as well as learning about nutrition, as part of their school curriculum? Could it make a difference? Yes, according to a recently published study that found such a program could improve the health of children.

School garden-based programs can help kids eat better by increasing their knowledge of nutrition and improving their intake of fruits and vegetables, as well as their overall diets. They can’t do it alone, however. Parental involvement is key to effectively promoting healthy eating among kids.

Kids’ improved blood markers signified a lower risk of prediabetes and diabetes.

Texas Sprouts was just such a program. It ran from 2015 to 2020 in Austin, Texas, and allowed elementary students the opportunity to experience gardening, cooking and nutrition education during the school day. And the program also offered classes for parents.

Researchers with the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston School of Public Health conducted a study that compared students from certain elementary schools that participated in Texas Sprouts for an academic year with students from schools that participated the following year.

Sixteen low-income elementary schools in Austin with majority Hispanic populations were chosen for the program. Eight schools participated in Texas Sprouts at the start of the study, while the researchers made the other eight schools wait until the next year to participate and serve as a control or comparison group.

A quarter-acre outdoor teaching garden was designed and built for the schools that initially took part in Texas Sprouts. Third through fifth grade students had weekly garden/nutrition/cooking classes, and monthly classes were held for parents. Each school was provided with assistance and resources to form a Garden Club.

The other eight schools received identical intervention the following academic year. Students’ height, weight and body mass index were recorded at the beginning and end of the school year, and blood work was performed that included glucose, insulin, insulin resistance and a lipid panel.

Students in schools that took part in Texas Sprouts saw a 0.02 percent reduction in HbA1c, an average blood sugar reading over the last three months, and a 6.4 mg/dL decrease in LDL, or bad cholesterol, compared to kids in schools that did not participate in the program. These improved blood markers signified a lower risk of prediabetes and diabetes. There were no effects seen on glucose, insulin, insulin resistance or other lipid levels.

“Small increases in dietary fiber and vegetable intake, as well as reductions in added sugar intake, may have combined effects on lowering bad cholesterol and improving glucose control,” Adriana Pérez, senior author of the study and a professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston School of Public Health, explained in a statement. She hopes more elementary schools will consider incorporating garden-based nutrition education

The study is published in JAMA Network Open.