National City’s Health Ambassadors are Fourth Graders - Voice of San Diego

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National City’s Health Ambassadors are Fourth Graders

Students amend the soil before planting a new bed of vegetables.

By Annelise Jolley

At Olivewood Gardens, kids arrive as visitors and leave as health ambassadors to their community. Through the Children’s Garden and Nutrition Education program, Olivewood inspires local elementary-aged kids to eat more healthfully, reduce food waste, and care for the planet.

Following a field trip to the gardens, many students return to their classrooms and homes and implement what they’ve learned. “What we hear from parents and teachers is that kids are going home and they’re recycling, they’re saving water, they’re really taking the hands-on activities that they’re doing at Olivewood and transferring them back into their homes and their schools,” says Executive Director Jen Nation.

Olivewood Gardens, which serves National City and surrounding communities, empowers students and families from diverse backgrounds to be healthy and active citizens through organic gardening, environmental stewardship, and nutrition education. “In National City there’s a high rate of type-2 diabetes,” says Nation. “Right now 50 percent of the fifth-graders are considered overweight or obese.” At the root of this public health problem is a lack of food and nutrition education available to community members. Olivewood fills this gap by teaching kids where their food comes from and giving them hands-on opportunities to enjoy the outdoors.

While the Children’s Garden and Nutrition Education program was the nonprofit’s flagship program, Olivewood—which will celebrate its tenth anniversary next year—offers programs for adults as well. Their adult education programs, such as Cooking for Salud, inspire parents to make culturally relevant changes that will improve their families’ short- and long-term health.

After two hours at Olivewood, kids leave as more adventurous eaters and better environmental stewards. Environmental Education Specialist Jeni Barajas says that the Children’s Garden and Nutrition Education program—funded in part by SDG&E—gives teachers an opportunity to expose their students to outdoor learning experiences that many of their students would not otherwise have. “Showing students that they can be impactful stewards of their environment through hands-on activities like gardening and composting has them all leaving with the notion that they can really make the world a better place. And they will!”

A typical field trip to Olivewood includes lessons in science, gardening, and nutrition, and complements the California Core Curriculum and Next Generation Science Standards. “When the kids are here, they’re doing different kinds of curriculum that tie back into what they’re learning in their science class or their math class or their english class, and then culminating in a nutrition lesson,” Nation explains.

At the gardens, students might do a pollination activity to learn about fruit reproduction. After, they’ll visit the kitchen and learn to cook with the produce they’ve just harvested from the garden. As they cook, they’ll also explore ways of reducing food and water waste. The hands-on learning experience means that students are learning through all the senses as they taste, cook, touch, smell, plant, and harvest. The class will discuss questions like, How do you eat the rainbow? What foods should you have on your plate? How are these foods grown?

The field trips also introduce students to foods they might never encounter at home. “Almost every participant enjoys tasting new vegetables, grains, fruits, and plant-based proteins picked fresh from the ground where they grow,” Barajas says. “One way to foster adventurous eating is by showing them where it grows and inviting them to harvest and taste it themselves…finding new foods that you like by tasting them on the spot has a huge impact.”

“They are surprised to see how so many veggies can taste so good,” adds Angelica Gastelum, Olivewood’s schools coordinator. “Students also take the recipe home to share with their families.” By sharing their enthusiasm for fresh food with their families, kids spread nutrition knowledge throughout National City. Students who attend the Children’s Garden and Nutrition Education program might start their field trip with little knowledge of nutrition or environmental stewardship, but they leave Olivewood Gardens as health ambassadors.

Want to get involved? Visit our website and learn how you can attend a cooking class, volunteer, or sign up for a children’s field trip or adult gardening class.