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Alice Waters in a lovely garden. [Photograph: Chez Panisse Foundation]

As those familiar with school lunch reform already know, Alice Waters' Edible Schoolyard program combines nutritional education with garden training, cooking, and other hands-on skills in the hopes of turning our nation's youth into trim, vegetable-craving eaters. Her initiatives have been the subject of much debate, by foodies and educators alike, leading to vehement supporters as well as detractors.

Last week, the Atkins Center for Weight and Health at U.C. Berkeley released an official study of Waters' School Lunch Initiative. The study followed about 240 students who were in Waters' program from 2006 to 2009. The goal of the study was to examine how participation in integrated garden-to-school curriculums affected students' attitudes about food, their eating habits, and their general knowledge of nutrition.

The study compared schools with "highly-developed School Lunch Initiative components" to schools with "lesser-developed [SLI] components." The highly-developed programs synthesized curriculum with hands-on cooking and gardening classes, as well as sticking to a healthier lunch program. The lesser-developed schools had the healthier food options, but did not utilize the alternative classroom settings.

Ultimately, this study produced interesting results.

Among families with students in the highly-developed SLI programs, 60% said that their child's knowledge about healthy food increased in the time span; 35% reported improved eating habits. Schools with highly-developed programs produced students with higher vegetable and fruit consumption, and generally better attitudes towards healthy eating habits. Importantly, most students' improvements were visible on a year-to-year basis, indicating a program that continued to teach and develop healthy eaters throughout the duration of the study.

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[Photograph: Edible Schoolyard]

Despite these seemingly positive reviews, however, there are a few things about this study that raise alarms. For instance, the effects of greater nutritional knowledge and healthier food preferences were essentially normalized across all schools by the time the students left elementary school. Additionally, there was no body mass index or test score difference between the students from highly-developed schools and lesser-developed schools. BMI is not necessarily a telltale sign of good health, and test scores don't always indicate a smart student, but a nutritional education program should seemingly address and improve at least one of these conditions.

It should also be noted that the vast majority (90%) of families participating in this study already reported purchasing and consuming whole grains, fruits, and vegetables with their children from the outset of the study. This is Berkeley, after all—these children are coming from a place where fresh produce is ample and highly valued. Perhaps the study would be more telling, and the SLI more effective, if implemented in less nutritionally-equipped cities.

Overall, I'm glad to see some real scientific research going into Waters' methodology. While this study does not provide an educator's perspective on revolutionizing the classroom method, at least we can see some indication that exposing children to healthy eating options produces healthier eaters in the long term. I hope to see the School Lunch Initiative put the results of this study to good use and craft a program that can best suit children across the country, in all economic and environmental settings.

Check out an executive summary of the study's findings from schoollunchinitiative.org or this great piece from The Atlantic for more information. The PDF of the full study is available here.

About the author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves consuming and learning about as much food as possible. She blogs at Feasting on Providence.

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