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Fort Wayne - Indiana: Cultivating Healthy Lifestyles

Background: Fighting childhood obesity

Robin Robinson recalls when her town was declared the 4th least-fit city in America in the October 2001 issue of Self magazine. “Obesity has become an epidemic,” says the special events coordinator for the Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation Department. In response, the Parks and Recreation Department initiated a free, family-oriented fitness and nutrition program called Move to Improve.

Out of this initiative came a youth gardening program called “Physical Fitness and Nutrition from the Ground Up.” The program’s largest gardening project completed its pilot phase in 2004, and engaged African American and Latino kids in a middle and low-income community. Robinson says the intention is to teach children and their families the health benefits of active gardening, and provide a setting for routine physical activity and access to healthy food.

Boy with Plow PhotoChanges to the built environment: Gardening as child's play

The program’s primary garden plot is no mere pea-patch: It spans roughly 1.5 acres on land donated by the Come As You Are Community Church. While the Parks Department helped take up sod and do some initial tilling, local volunteers and the kids themselves created the garden from scratch.

Robinson treats the garden as a kind of playground, and frames gardening activities within an approach to fitness and healthy eating. Typical gardening activities such as weeding, watering, planting and harvesting crops are complimented by games, stretching and warm-up exercises to encourage healthier lifestyles. Since there’s no hose, children haul buckets of water from the adjacent church, traversing the many rows to water crops.

Healthy eating is another central component. “A lot of kids had no idea about the veggies they were growing—most saw lettuce just in a sandwich,” says Robinson, who introduces them to new vegetables such as summer squash and bok choy. She also sends them home with fresh vegetables, cooking suggestions and recipes to share with their parents.

Garden ExpanseFunding: Innovative solutions for an innovative project

Ingenuity overcame many potential obstacles, from crafting a plow out of old bicycle parts to getting fertilizer from the local zoo. Starting with a small grant from Health Visions of Fort Wayne, Robinson went on a crusade to find creative ways to get what she needed to built a garden. She elicited other donations of materials, including a portable toilet, sunscreen from the American Cancer Society, and land for the garden from the pastor at the neighborhood church.

Results: A fun and active venue for all ages

Volunteer gardener Ephraim Smiley lost 15 pounds and was able to lower his diabetes medications due to his participation in the project. Kids and parents alike return to the gardening sessions (which meet three evenings a week, roughly two hours each evening), reporting on what they made with the harvested vegetables. Last season, one mother regularly turned out with her five children, ranging in age from 8 to 14 years old.

Engaging children in the process of growing their own food gives them a sense of accomplishment, says Robinson, and boosts their enthusiasm to eat what they harvested themselves. She sees participating children eating healthier and developing new, healthier habits now that there’s a place for them to be physically active.

Lessons learned: Growing despite challenges

The sheer amount of work involved in creating and maintaining a 1.5-acre garden was Robinson’s biggest challenge. “We were out there when the kids weren’t,” she says, noting that seven volunteers helped her to weed and water the plot during the program’s off-days. “We had no idea how much work it was going to be when we first started.”

Still, lack of funding remains a major hurdle to expanding the program from its pilot phase. Robinson also sees great potential for establishing a curriculum around the garden, making the program more intellectually challenging and integrating garden-based nutrition and exercise activities into the school setting.

Making Places for Health Kids ReportNew report from the Active Living Network

Fort Wayne’s initiative to promote healthy behaviors among children through active gardening is included in a new Active Living Network report, Making Places for Healthy Kids: An environmental scan of places designed for children to be active. This report examines eight efforts around the country where changes to the built environment are creating safe and convenient opportunities for children to be active in everyday life.

"A lot of these kids didn’t know what vegetables were. Now they request vegetables. It’s not as difficult to get them to eat healthy because now they know what healthy looks like.”


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This report, produced by the Active Living Network, examines eight efforts to make changes to the built environment that create opportunities for children to be more physically active in their dail ...

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