Chronic illness is undoubtedly on the rise. Almost everyone seems to know someone suffering from disease within their circle of family and friends. The current outlook is bleak. Global cases of cancer are anticipated to rise by half – growing from 14 million in 2012 to 21.6 million cases by 2030 (World Health Organization).
Cancer is only one of multiple chronic illnesses our children’s generation will undoubtedly battle in the future. Heart disease and diabetes are also on the rise. In light of these trends, it is imperative we work to find solutions to preserve the health of our children.
Moving from Problem to Solution
Recent research indicates we may have more power in the prevention of disease than previously believed. More than 30% of cancers can be linked to the poor quality of our food (American Cancer Institute). This research is incredibly empowering. In the world of biology, epigenetics is the study of how environmental factors influence the expression of genes. Even if a person has a predisposition for cancer, problematic genes can be kept from expressing themselves through a variety of health practices, including good nutrition. By teaching our children how to make informed food choices, we can help them maximize their health and prevent disease.
The USDA now recommends children fill half of their plate with fruits and vegetables at every meal. If you have ever served food to children, you know that getting them to eat more produce is easier said than done. Many children prefer grains, dairy, and protein to healthy produce. Interestingly, a powerful solution to the “I don’t like vegetables” battle lies in your own backyard: gardening!
Gardening comes naturally to children. They love to play and explore the world outdoors. Endlessly curious, children are often delighted to learn first hand where the food on their plate actually comes from. Allowing them to partake in the garden to table process of preparing food has incredible benefits. Research shows regular gardening:
-Increases children’s access to healthy food options.
-Encourages them to try new fruits and vegetables.
-Improves dietary habits that ultimately help prevent chronic disease.
How to Start Gardening Today
Starting a garden at home is a rewarding way to involve children directly in the agricultural process from start to finish. Don’t have a large backyard? Numerous options exist for small spaces and patio gardens. Look into raised beds, container gardening, and straw bale gardening at your local lawn and garden center. When picking your first plants, stick to nutrient-dense, easy keepers like radish, lettuce varieties and peas.
If you don’t have the space or you do not have the time to maintain a home garden, community gardens are wonderful alternatives. Every community garden operates differently. Some require gardeners to purchase a plot and maintain it independently. Others allow gardeners to care for a large, shared garden collaboratively and split produce yields according to the amount of time each gardener commits to garden maintenance. Check out the American Community Garden Association to find a community garden near you.
In an effort to improve the health of their students, many public and private schools are building school gardens. School gardens are a great way to educate children and teachers alike on the importance of nutritious food. Often, these gardens are started with the help of dedicated parent groups. Reach out to your school to see if starting a garden is something they would consider to improve the health of their students.
However you decide to begin the gardening journey with your children, remember the importance of experiential education. Allow them to plant, water, and weed the beds. It may surprise you how excited children are to eat vegetables they grew themselves. Excitement to try nutritious food is the first step towards improving the way our children eat and ultimately preventing disease down the road.
Do you garden with your kids? If so, how has it helped you teach them about healthy eating?
Alex Henze is the Outreach Coordinator for NuGenesis, a non-profit educational organization teaching communities how understand the power of food. NuGenesis facilitates public and private gardening, cooking, and nutrition wellness classes to teach participants about foods that maximize health and wellbeing.Personal empowerment through education is key to improving the health of our communities and reducing health care costs. The vision of NuGenesis is to create a model of education, sustainable agriculture, and research that can be replicated worldwide. Learn more at www.nugenesisfarm.org.
“Cancer is a Preventable Disease that Requires Major Lifestyle Changes.” US National Library of Medicine. National Center for Biotechnology Information. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2515569/
ChooseMyPlate.gov. United States Department of Agriculture. http://www.choosemyplate.gov
“Diet and Physical Activity: What’s the Cancer Connection?” American Cancer Society. American Cancer Society, Inc. 30 June 2014. Web. http://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancercauses/dietandphysicalactivity/diet-and-physical-activity
“What works in Early Care & Education.” Wisconsin Nutrition, Physical Activity & Obesity Program. http://www.dhs.wisconsin.gov/publications/P0/P00232.pdf
“Wisconsin Fruit and Vegetable Nutrition Program.” Wisconsin Department of Health Services. http://www.dhs.wisconsin.gov/physical%2Dactivity/FoodSystem/FruitVegetable/MoreMatters/
World Health Organization Study. International Agency for Research on Cancer. http://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/pr/2014/pdfs/pr224_E.pdf