After urban gardening phenomenon, it is the turn of the schools to talk abut vegetable growing in their backyards obviously to try and change the perception of kids towards food and health. There is a growing feeling that the childhood eating practices are carried through the life and bad or undesirable habits are difficult to shake off later, no matter how hard one tries. The present obesity related health disorders like diabetes, CVD, hypertension etc are directly related to wrong foods and unbalanced nutrition. One way of reversing this trend is intensive education during early stage of schooling but its effectiveness is some what uncertain besides the logistical difficulties in mobilizing right type of teachers in sufficient numbers to interact at the school level. Probably by including gardening as a compulsory subject, kids can be sensitized to the importance of fruits and vegetables by taking up their growing with short duration cycle. The idea can further be reinforced by imparting in-school cooking lessons and model eating sessions.
Almost a century ago this concept was put into practice by sociologists worrying about increasing pace of urbanization in countries like the US. The underlying idea is to arrest the progressive disconnection between the children and the soil that provides nourishment through agriculture. It is a fact that most children of modern industrialized society do not even know from where their food comes, how the raw materials that go into food processing are raised and the importance of cooking and nutrition. Many schools were provided with adjoining stretches of land for cultivation of greens and other fresh produce. Unfortunately with increasing industrialization, school areas started shrinking in urban settlements due to escalating real estate prices leaving very little scope to continue with or expand the program far and wide.
It was left to an enterprising American chef to revive the concept and start a viable program in 1995, visualizing the possibility of reversing the prevalent habit of constant "snacking", an addiction developed by the school kids. Some research studies have brought out clearly that such an approach can change the food consumption habits for good and more schools adopt this strategy better it will be for making a lasting impact at national level. There appears to be unexpected interest amongst the school managements, teachers and the parents with more educational institutions in the country coming forward to implement the scheme in many community schools. Of course the logistics and resource mobilization are still areas of concern in taking up the new strategy in a large way.
No doubt school gardens provide children with a hands-on opportunity to learn about food production and healthy eating habits. In a trend setting project a New York City school parking lot which presented a picture of devastation because of lack of funds for repair, the crumbling asphalt was replaced with rich, dark soil for the children to indulge in cultivating leafy greens, carrots and beets. Adjacent to this garden, the students were provided with a kitchen where they' are taught to clean and prepare their harvested material before sharing a nutritious meal at a communal table. Further they were exposed to conversion of organic waste to manure in the composting area nearby before returning to the main school building for classes that build upon their experience of working in the garden. The far sighted vision of those progressive reformers of early last century to prevent the urban children becoming disconnected from the soil and the food they consume every day deserves appreciation to day. By encouraging the development of community gardens for kids in empty urban spaces, at least three benefits can expected. First, they get out in the fresh air; second, they get fresh vegetables that their families might otherwise not have had access to or been able to afford; third, they learn from where food comes.
How far the above idea is practical under the conditions prevailing in India? Though concept-wise it is sound, probably it may not be immediately relevant in this country where 70% of the population live in rural areas near agricultural farms and as such they do not need any exposure to the practice of cultivation. Besides obesity is not a problem yet in India where malnutrition, under-nutrition and hunger are priorities sucking out lot of resources to tackle them. But urban children can have such a program at least in a limited way because the population in these high income islands are insulated from the activities related to food production and processing. If land availability is a constraining factor, there are alternative options like use of clay pots, cement boxes, wooden boxes etc which can be used for limited programs that can make some impact.