The project is supported by a large grant from the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
Almost 1 in 5 children (18.5%) between the ages of 2 and 19 in the U.S. are obese. Childhood obesity continues to be one of the biggest health concerns regardless of ethnicity or socioeconomic background.
Increasingly, literature suggests the risk of childhood obesity starts in the early years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 13.9% of children ages 2-5 are considered obese, and those children are likely to remain obese into later life.
Not only is the issue that children are not eating healthy food, but also their lack of exercise. A group of Texas Tech University researchers, however, are hoping to show the ability to solve both problems at the same time.
Muntazar Monsur, an assistant professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture in the College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources, is the lead investigator on a project that hopes to illustrate how hands-on gardening in the preschool setting can result in a healthier lifestyle for children and into adulthood, combining the exercise from gardening with the ability to eat healthy fruits and vegetables grown as a result of the gardening.
The project, in collaboration with researchers at North Carolina State University (NCSU), entitled "Effectiveness of a Child Care Hands-on Gardening Component for Preventing Preschool Obesity in Different Climactic Zones and Demographic Areas," received a $272,149 grant from the United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). The goal is to discover how hands-on fruit and vegetable gardening may influence preschool-aged children's (ages 3-5) healthy eating habits and their amount of physical activity while attending childcare centers throughout West Texas.
"I arrived at Texas Tech last year with the promise to develop a long-term research plan focused on a holistic approach of childhood development by bringing more nature into children's everyday experience to promote health and well-being," Monsur said. "I believe this USDA grant will help me and my department advance this goal."
Beginning in September, Monsur, landscape architecture associate professor Charles Klein, who retired this spring, and Department of Psychological Sciences associate professor Jason Van Allen, along with North Carolina State researchers Nilda Cosco and Robin Moore, will build upon an ongoing USDA study at NCSU. Together, they will compare physical activity and fruit-and-vegetable eating preferences of preschool-aged children in randomly assigned gardening and non-gardening child care sites in Lubbock.
They will outfit children with movement monitors that can capture the intensity of the children's physical activity while also collecting data using observational methods. The two measurements will help provide evidence on how hands-on gardening influences children's physical activity patterns and intensity.
Children's fruit-and-vegetable eating preferences will be measured by a picture-based survey that has already been tested by NCSU research team. Researchers also will gather data from parents regarding their children's eating preferences to see if there is any carryover effect from the preschools to the home on children's vegetable-eating preferences when they participate in the hands-on gardening.
This data will then be compared to data collected from non-gardening child care sites to determine if there are any significant differences in outcomes. Researchers at NCSU are conducting the same data collection to determine the effectiveness of hands-on gardening as an obesity prevention tool in child care centers located in drastically different climatic zones within the U.S.
"Dr. Van Allen is an expert of measuring children's physical activity-related behaviors, and the Natural Learning Initiative at NCSU is a pioneering research organization on children's outdoor environments where I worked as a postdoctoral researcher for four years before coming to Texas Tech," Monsur said. "The goal of this joint initiative is maximizing the development and use of limited resources by generating a critical mass of expertise geared towards combating an early onset of childhood obesity in U.S. child care facilities."
Monsur said because childcare centers are policy-driven institutions, evidence unearthing the benefits of hands-on gardening could encourage lawmakers to adopt supportive rules to start a nationwide agricultural movement by making hands-on gardening a required criterion for child care design, providing a great chance that the project could improve the lives of young children on a national scale.