Supporters of school gardens were positively giddy with news this week that a three-year study of a garden and cooking initiative in Berkeley, Calif., schools had shown students more eager to eat vegetables and make healthy food choices. But a closer look at the study shows that these positive results were attributed almost exclusively to fourth and fifth graders in two Berkeley elementary schools, and that students as they moved into middle school not only made little further progress, but actually regressed, even though they spent more time in gardening and cooking classes.

The message seems to be that unless your school has a highly structured program around a paid gardener, cooking instructor and nutrition curriculum, don’t expect a garden to increase your child’s appetite for vegetables.

Alice Waters, through her Chez Panisse Foundation, has done pioneering work to show that children exposed to gardening and cooking will develop healthier eating habits. According to reserchers from the University of California, fourth- and fifth-graders in a “highly developed” garden and culinary program ate more vegetables. So why does this progress come to a screeching halt when they graduate to middle school?

Another question begging for an answer is why so many Berkeley schools, although they’ve been equipped with gardens and kitchens through the School Lunch Initiative Waters sponsored, apparently aren’t using them.

The findings roughly confirm my own anecdotal experiences working for a week in the “dining commons” at Berkeley’s Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School as part of my reporting on school food issues. Despite being involved in Waters’ flagship “Edible Schoolyard” gardening and cooking program, students displayed a conspicuous indifference to vegetables in the food line. The three-year evaluation seems to indicate that while children at a certain age embrace the idea of eating more healthfully, they lapse into a sort of food funk after entering puberty.

So, do memories of gardening and cooking lessons revive in high school or after adolescence and produce more food-conscious adults? That was the hope of Berkeley’s food service team, who stressed to me repeatedly while I was there that kids must be exposed to healthier foods even if they don’t eat them, that the lessons will inform their eating habits later in life.

“I think in Middle School developmentally kids are all over the place.  It is really a tough stage and it is also reflected in their food choices,” Bonnie Christenson, executive chef for Berkeley schools, said today when asked about the evaluation’s results. “In high school you see the kids starting to eat salad again. They are moving away from their parents’ control but they are more mature and responsible. They eat a wider variety of foods including veggies.”

But, as Christenson notes, “The study doesn’t cover a long enough period to reflect this.”

“I really do think it makes an impact for life-truly,” said chef Ann Cooper, who was hired by Waters to reform the meal program at Berkeley and now runs food service for schools in Boulder, Co. “Middle School is tough no matter what. But in all other academic domains we continue to work with them and we need to in this area as well.”

Waters, who was quoted celebrating the study’s results in The Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle, did not respond to my query about the underwhelming middle school results.

Berkeley schools are in the fifth year of a major food service overhaul instigated by parents with help from the Chez Panisse Foundation and the non-profit Center for Ecoliteracy. The schools eliminated processed, reheated meals and adopted food made from scratch. A local bond initiative helped pay for a new central kitchen. Meanwhile, the School Lunch Initiative, designed to show children the connection between how food is grown and prepared and their own health, installed gardens in all 11 of the district’s elementary schools and three middle schools. Thirteen instructional kitchens were built.

Waters’ vision of children growing and cooking their own food has inspired school gardens across the country. The perceived benefits have been the subject of sometimes furious debate.

In their report, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, said there was wide variation in how Berkeley schools rolled out the so-called School Lunch Initiative sponsored by Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Foundation. They also said it was difficult to establish a control group for their study against which to measure results. So what they did was divide Berkeley schools into two groups, one described as having a “highly developed” garden, cooking and nutrition education program, the other having a “less developed” program. They selected two elementary schools from each group and began tracking the progress of fourth and fifth graders using questionnaires and photographs of what the kids chose for lunch.

The two “less developed” schools, represented by 193 fourth- and fifth-graders, were distinguished by having no paid garden staff, little to no garden programming, and students who spent little or no time  in the garden. In addition, these two schools had no paid cooking staff and no cooking classroom, and teachers in the school had done little to integrate nutrition concepts into the curriculum. These schools tended to have larger proportions of higher-income students and were thus ineligible for outside funding to pay for enhanced programs.

In contrast, the two “highly developed” elementary schools, represented by 134 fourth- and fifth-graders, had paid garden and cooking staff and the students spent 22 to 56 hours in garden and cooking classes each year. In addition, some teachers had integrated nutrition into the curriculum. These schools tended to have higher propotions of low-income students and were thus eligible for outside funding to pay for enhanced programs.

All three of the middle schools that these students eventually attended had garden and cooking programs in place, although some programs were more advanced than others.

Following the students from these four schools over a three-year period yielded these results:

* In year one, fourth- and fifth-grade students in schools with highly developed School Lunch Initiative components and those in schools with lesser-developed School Lunch Initiative components all ate about the same amount of fruit and vegetable servings per day (about 4 servings, or 2 cups). In year two, the younger students (fourth graders who had moved into fifth grade) attending the schools with highly developed School Lunch Initiative components had increased their consumption of vegetables by nearly 1 serving (0.4 cups), and for both fruits and vegetables by about 1.5 servings (0.7 cups), while those attending schools with lesser-developed School Lunch Initiative components had decreased their consumption of both fruits and vegetables by nearly 0.4 servings.

* As they became fifth-grade students in year two, fourth-grade students from schools with highly developed School Lunch Initiative components showed upward trends in family dinner prepared from scratch, eating family dinner nearly every day, using recipes from school at home and helping prepare dinner. In contrast, fourth-grade students from schools with lesser-developed School Lunch Initiative components did not show increasing trends in these behaviors from the fourth to fifth grade, although more students from these schools said they ate family dinner nearly every day and this remained consistent from  year one to year two.

* Fourth-grade students from schools with highly developed School Lunch Initiative components showed significantly greater increases in preference for green leafy vegetables in particular as they moved into fifth grade, compared to fourth grade students from schools with lesser-developed School Lunch Initiative components. By seventh grade, preference for fruits and vegetables was similar among the
various exposure groups, except preference for green leafy vegetables was associated with higher exposure to School Lunch Initiative components.

* Sixth-grade students showed no significant increase in fruit and vegetable consumption compared to the previous year, but seventh-grade students in the middle school with the most highly developed School Lunch Initiative components showed small increases in total fruit and vegetable consumption, putting them at a consumption level of about 4.5 servings of fruit and vegetables daily. Seventh grade students in the other middle school, where there was less exposure to School Lunch Initiative components, showed a mean decrease in both fruit and vegetable consumption of about one serving per day.

* By Year Three, seventh-grade students attending the middle school with the most highly developed School Lunch Initiative program had increased their nutrition knowledge scores by 5% over the previous year, while students attending the other two middle schools, which had lesser-developed components, had decreased their knowledge scores by 6% in one school and 14%in the other.

* Students attending the middle school with highly developed School Lunch Initiative components in year three showed more positive attitudes toward eating the food served at school, liking the cafeteria, agreeing that produce tastes better in-season, and agreeing that eating choices can help or hurt the environment compared to students attending the other two middle schools, which had lesser-developed School Lunch Initiative components.

* There were no consistent differences in attitudes about food, health, the environment or school between students attending schools with highly developed School Lunch Initiative components and students attending schools with lesser-developed School Lunch Initiative components over the three years of the evaluation. However, proportionately more students attending Middle School X, with highly developed School Lunch Initiative components, in year three tended to show positive attitudes toward eating the food served at school and liking the cafeteria at school, as well as agreeing that produce tastes better in-season and that eating choices can help or hurt the environment.

* The need for continued exposure to the School Lunch Initiative into middle school is further supported by the observation that at the one middle school where seventh-grade students showed a mean decrease in fruit and vegetable consumption of about one serving per day, the cooking and garden programming was offered only as an elective.  

* Parents with children in schools with highly developed School Lunch Initiative components were more likely than parents with children in schools with lesser-developed School Lunch Initiative components to agree that school had changed their child’s knowledge about making healthy food choices (60%versus 36%) and their child’s attitudes about food (42% versus 19%), and had improved their child’s eating habits (35% versus 16%).

Clearly, exposure at the elementary school level to garden and cooking programs with paid staff can improve children’s eating habits. So how to account for the fact that progress comes to a virtual standstill in middle school, even where sixth- and seventh-graders spend many hours in the garden and in cooking classes and teachers have integrated nutrition into their lesson plans?

“Middle school is often a time when eating habits worsen as children move into adolescence,” is as close to an explanation as the authors of this report offer. “To sustain gains in healthy eating made by program exposure in the younger grades,” they conclude, “continued learning and availability of healthy food options can help overcome the pull toward poor habits.”

In other words, carry on.