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With fast food and quick meal preparation options aplenty, it’s easy for negative eating habits to develop in children.
According to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Special Nutrition Division, roughly one third of all children ages 2-4 are overweight or obese.
That’s why Helen Gabriel, program and evaluations director for Smart Start of Brunswick County, and her colleagues started Just Watch it Grow.
The program seeks to tackle childhood obesity and encourage healthy eating by having local children plant gardens and grow fresh vegetables.
Smart Start representatives chose three local groups to help sprout the program: a Head Start, a childcare center and a family childcare home. They used money provided through an ATMC Smart Connections grant to purchase many of the items needed to get started, such as soil, compost, raised garden beds, seeds, tools and other supplies.
The children then planted, tended, harvested and celebrated the cultivation of the project. In the early stages, children even plotted and designed their centers’ gardens to reflect their individual taste buds.
“This has been a wonderful learning opportunity for the children, and I am so grateful that I have been able to give them this experience,” said Julie Delair, owner of Learn and Play, a family childcare home center.
“When children experience hands-on activities and involvement in planting, harvesting and preparing vegetables, they are more likely to give vegetables a try,” Gabriel said. “An added bonus of the Just Watch it Grow program is the increase in outdoor physical activity for the kids.”
About 100 children have participated in Just Watch it Grow gardens.
In addition to the ATMC Smart Connections grant, Smart Start also partnered with Lowe’s Home Improvement, Cooperative Extension of Brunswick County and various volunteers to expand the program to other sites.
“The children loved it,” Gabriel said. “They enjoyed eating the vegetables and took a great deal of pride in the project. It really made learning fun for these kids. The ultimate goal is to implement the program in all childcare centers in Brunswick County, wipe out childhood obesity and participate in local farmers markets so that the centers can use some of the harvests to generate revenue for future expenses. If attained, the growth spurts among these children would be the healthy kind, and Brunswick County families would reap the long-term benefits.”
ATMC established its grant program in 2006. To date, ATMC has awarded $325,000 in grant funds to 214 community organizations and local educators.