AKRON, Ohio — Learning healthy eating habits is important for kids as they grow up.
The American Heart Association is teaming up with Firestone Park Elementary School in Akron to build a teaching garden so students can have firsthand access to healthy foods. The organization said its all about making sure the students grow into healthy adults.
The garden outside of the school has become a whole new opportunity for learning for third-grader Gerald Cunningham.
“Well, first we started off watering. Then the second day we did picking,” Cunningham said.
Cunningham is one of the students tending to the school’s community garden just installed last spring.
“Our second graders come out and they plant in the spring. And then they come in throughout the summer as well as our community, and everyone who takes care of the garden as well, come to harvest,” second grade teacher Julia Spangler said.
Spangler said her students love getting outside and digging in the dirt, but they also enjoy learning about the food they’re growing.
“We start talking then about the nutritional value and trying new things and it ties in with all of our academics,” Spangler said.
Now, those lessons are being expanded. The American Heart Association and Cargill are adding six additional beds to the garden at Firestone as part of the AHA’s Teaching Gardens Program.
The school has 318 students and the AHA said nearly all of them qualify for free or reduced meals, much higher than the county average of 15%. That means many of them may not have affordable access to fresh fruits and veggies.
“This is just a really awesome way to expand food security as well as teach students how they can learn hands-on practical experience as far as planning, harvesting and then learning how to eat healthy foods,” Valerie Weber, the Community Impact Director for the American Heart Association, said.
According to the AHA, nearly one-third of kids in the United States, including 16% of students in Ohio, are overweight or obese. That puts them at greater risk for developing chronic illnesses like heart disease.
Weber said that’s why starting these lessons early is critical.
“When they are really ingrained in everything that they're doing, from start to finish, they're much more likely to eat these healthy foods and incorporate them into their diet especially later in life,” Weber said.
Spangler said Cunningham is already on the right track.
“Gerald's been very good all summer about coming in and harvesting tomatoes and peppers and zucchini and cucumbers and taking those home and sharing them with his family,” Spangler said.
The newly expanded garden at Firestone Park joins the 500 installed across the country as part of the AHA’s Teaching Gardens Program.
Jade Jarvis is a reporter at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
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