GEORGETOWN, Texas — On a bright, sunny day, classroom lessons headed outside for these elementary school students. Teacher Nicole Jones leads them in maintaining the garden at James Mitchell Elementary School in Georgetown, Texas.
"It's just something that we look forward to doing now,” she said. "It's just that excitement of them watching things grow."
Kids tend to their favorites there.
"I like to eat carrots, cucumbers, salad, watermelon," said student Carlos Saldana.
Four-year-old Story McAuliff has her own list.
"Tomatoes and carrots and broccoli," she said.
Camryn Monte, 5, has her favorites as well.
"Carrots, tomatoes and lettuce," she listed off.
Flowers can be found there, too.
"Sometimes, I'll plant bluebonnet,” said student Nila Alvarez, “tomatoes, squash and peas."
Kids also have other reasons they like the garden.
"Well, I like getting dirty, very dirty,” said Nick Wilson. “I sometimes roll around in the mud."
What's happening around the garden may look like fun, but it's also potentially life changing.
"We had a lot of kids that didn't realize that fruits, vegetables or food didn't come from the grocery store,” said Katie Nikah, project coordinator with the University of Texas' EdEN Lab.
Several years ago, through the Texas Sprouts program, they created gardens in several elementary schools in the state. They combined them with 18 lessons spread out over the year, which taught students about growing produce.
"We see and we know that more exposure to fruits and vegetables leads to a greater intake of fruits, vegetables for kids," Nikah said.
Now, there is proof it made a difference in their health.
In a new study from the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers examined more than 1,100 children in the program and found their blood sugar levels improved and levels of bad cholesterol dropped.
"That was our hope," Nikah said. “I think it's really powerful when they're seeing something they're putting in the ground from a seed. They're watching it grow over time and they're pulling it out of the ground and then they're preparing it into something that they're eating."
It’s not hard, they say, for any school to try.
"We hear from a lot of schools all over the country that either maybe had a garden or want to build a garden,” Nikah said. “I think this could absolutely be replicated."
It's no secret that America has an obesity problem. According to the CDC, more than 41% of American adults are considered obese, making them more susceptible to heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancers. The medical cost of obesity in this country is $179 billion. On average, someone who is obese pays an extra $1,800 each year in extra medical expenses.
Getting children to eat healthier foods early on could have a big impact on their future health as adults starting in a school garden.
For teacher Nicole Jones, she sees a difference in how her students now feel about fruits and vegetables.
“It's so exciting just to watch them pull a carrot out of the garden and get so excited for, 'Oh my gosh, like, this is a carrot!’” Jones said. “And then, we go and we cut it and we have it for a snack."
It’s one way of encouraging healthy habits on a lifelong path to good health.