Learn, Grow, Eat and Go! program reaching at-risk youth in Bexar County

Writer: Paul Schattenberg, 210-859-5752, paschattenberg@ag.tamu.edu

Contact: Ruby Zavala, 210-631-0400, ruby.zavala@ag.tamu.edu

SAN ANTONIO – An innovative 10-week program being implemented in elementary and middle schools in low-income areas of Bexar County is providing students with important life lessons in health and wellness.

“This is a part of town where students usually see things that are run down or dilapidated, so having a chance to see something grow and flourish is a real positive,” said Esperanza Soria, a teacher at E.T. Wrenn Middle School in San Antonio, talking about the school’s vegetable garden. The garden was built as part of Learn, Grow, Eat and Go! program activities coordinated by the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.

The garden, which produced red lettuce, Chinese cabbage, Swiss chard, onions, cauliflower, broccoli and other fall vegetables, was recently harvested by about 20 students participating in the 10-week program that focuses on healthy eating and exercise.

“In addition to these students, our ‘life skills’ students, who are our special needs students, got involved,” Soria said. “They were the ones who watered the garden to make sure the plants would grow.”

Soria said working in the garden and participating in other aspects of the Learn, Grow, Eat and Go! program “planted seeds in the students that would serve them for a lifetime.”

Students at Wrenn Middle School in San Antonio prepare to harvest the vegetables grown in their school garden as part of Learn, Grow, Eat, Go! activities. (Texas A&M AgriLife Communications photo by Paul Schattenberg)

Students at Wrenn Middle School in San Antonio prepare to harvest the vegetables grown in their school garden as part of Learn, Grow, Eat, Go! activities. (Texas A&M AgriLife Communications photo by Paul Schattenberg)

The Learn, Grow, Eat and Go! program attempts to encourage better eating behaviors and inspire more physical activity among young people as a means to help address health issues, such as obesity and diabetes, affecting millions of Texans, said Ruby Zavala, AgriLife Extension youth gardens coordinator for Bexar County.

“The curriculum was developed by the International Junior Master Gardener program of  AgriLife Extension and incorporates growing a school garden, learning about nutrition and healthy eating, making better food choices and getting more exercise,” Zavala said.

Zavala said Wrenn, located in the Edgewood Independent School District, was one of three Bexar County schools recently completing the program. The other participating schools were Baskin Elementary in the San Antonio ISD and Palo Alto Elementary in the South San Antonio ISD.

She said the schools were chosen as the three districts were in some of the lowest-income areas of the city and the students attending them met many of the criteria for being considered at-risk. More than 200 students from the three schools participated in the program this fall.

“AgriLife Extension was able to implement the program in these schools due to a Community Impact Grant from Baptist Health Foundation,” Zavala said. “Baptist Health Foundation was very supportive of our efforts to be awarded this grant, and those reviewing our applications were excited to see our activities would include building, planting and harvesting a garden.”

Zavala said the Learn, Grow, Eat and Go! curriculum combines academics with gardening, nutrition-oriented food experiences, physical activity and family engagement.

“This is a very hands-on program that involves youth in a variety of activities,” Zavala said. “And while students learn some information we’re trying to impart in their classes, this program helps supplement and really focus on the students’ personal health and wellness. AgriLife Extension employees collaborate with school principals, teachers, coaches and others to implement it.”

Israel Lopez, a coach at Palo Alto Elementary School, said although his students get daily exercise and learn about basic health, the program provides an opportunity to delve more deeply into health and wellness topics.

“For example, we coaches teach the kids about basic health, but working with the Learn, Grow, Eat and Go! curriculum gives us a reason to talk more about systems like the circulatory system and how eating well and exercising helps the heart and promotes better health,” he said. “We also spend more time talking about proper nutrition and how kids should eat more fruits and vegetable and avoid junk food.”

Zavala said another important part of the program is demonstrating how to prepare healthy meals and providing students with recipes they can take home and share with their families.

“The students get involved in the cooking and learn they can enjoy new things, and they can even introduce their parents to vegetables they’ve never used before and tell them about their nutritional value,” she said. “The kids enjoy tasting new things and using them in recipes.”

Zavala said the program has increased the interest of students in eating more fruits and vegetables and developing healthier eating behaviors.

Learn, Grow, Eat, Go! participants at Baskin Elementary show the vegetables harvested from the school garden built and planted as part of program activities. (Photo courtesy of Baskin Elementary)

Learn, Grow, Eat, Go! participants at Baskin Elementary show the vegetables harvested from their school garden. (Photo courtesy Baskin Elementary)

Melissa Bustamante, a third-grade teacher at Baskin Elementary school, was one of three teachers involved in the program.

“Myself, Amalia Cortez and Maryann Felix all had kids in the program,” she said. “It was a wonderful experience for the students and they really enjoyed planting and harvesting the garden. They also enjoyed the recipes and shared them with their families.”

She said the participants kept a journal of their gardening activities and were given additional reading material to support program lessons.  

“The kids were always excited about what they were going to do and learn next,” she said.

Zavala said the Learn, Grow, Eat and Go! program incorporates other aspects of education, such as writing, math, earth science and entomology.

“It also gives students an opportunity to engage in other activities such as public speaking, civics and art,” she said.

Zavala said schools that adopt the program are selected because their school showed an exceptional interest in their students’ health and nutrition.

“We hope to continue to support schools like these,” she said. “We already have three schools ready for the program in the spring of 2017 and look forward to working with three more in the fall. Our goal is to reach over 500 students next year.”

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