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GardenFit program helps kids pare summer weight gain

After spending the morning spreading hay mulch and bark at Madison’s East High Youth Farm, a group of middle-schoolers lined up for a well-deserved lunch. Under the canopy of a large oak, they slathered tortillas with beans, then spooned on tomatoes, bell peppers, onions and carrots that they had chopped themselves.

While some kids piled their burritos high with veggies, others merely sprinkled. That’s no shocker: preteens aren’t known as big fans of fresh produce. But this particular group has made striking progress in that direction.

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For three hours a day, five days a week, the team of ten has been learning to grow, prepare and eat vegetables as part of the UW-Madison’s GardenFit program. The goal is to help them avoid a big summer jump in weight, a trend that nutritionists and physicians have been observing among children, particularly those considered overweight. GardenFit participants fall in that category.

“We’re not necessarily trying to cause a lot of weight loss over the summer,” says Sarah Jacquart, a nutritional sciences graduate student, who runs the program. “We’re trying to prevent that rapid three- or six-pound weight gain that others have seen.”

Packing on summer pounds is seen as a factor in the national trend toward childhood obesity. Today’s 12-year-olds are 15 pounds heavier than their 1960 peers on average. Nearly one-third of children and teens in America are now overweight.

GardenFit got started when Jacquart’s advisor, nutritional scientist Dale Schoeller met with UW-Madison physician Alexandra Adams, and the two decided to try to find a way to prevent this summertime weight gain. Working with colleagues at the Wisconsin Institute for the Prevention of Obesity and Diabetes (WIPOD) and Nathan Larson, education director for Madison’s Troy Gardens, the team came up with a two-pronged approach to weight control.

“It’s about having kids spend time during the summer doing non-sedentary activity,” says Jacquart. “It’s also about trying to get them to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into their diet and trying to expose them to some healthy food options that maybe they wouldn’t be exposed to otherwise.”

GardenFit kids stay plenty active. They weed, dig furrows and heap ridges, plant seedlings and water them, and spread hay and wood chips to keep down weeds. They also pick ripe produce to be sent to the Goodman Community Center’s food pantry.

Although it sounds like a lot of work, keeping the group moving is actually one of the biggest challenges. “A lot of them want to take breaks and sit down a lot,” says Jacquart.

But if they didn’t have GardenFit, they’d be doing much less. Without it, one participant admits, she would sleep until noon.

As they work in the plots, the kids become familiar with a wide variety of vegetables, many of which they’d never seen or tasted before. They’re constantly encouraged by Jacquart and the farm’s gardeners to try new things.

“They are not used to eating very many fruits and vegetables, and a lot of them think it’s nasty,” says Jacquart. “But when they see one of us just pop a snap pea off the vine and eat it, they are like, ‘Oh, you can eat that?’ And then they try it.”

Twice a week, the group prepares a meal together, incorporating fresh vegetables from the garden when possible. Cooking and eating their concoctions is their favorite activity, by far.

Jacquart hopes that eating fresh, healthy foods will become a life-long habit, but she knows it’s an uphill battle. Last summer, during a pilot version of the program, participants received a small stipend of cash. Many of them said they spent it on junk food.

This year they receive Target gift cards instead. Now they buy MP3 players and video games.

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