Cooperative Extension plays a vital role in developing healthy minds and bodies

Photo by Linda Kor The University of Arizona Cooperative Extension in Holbrook is a great resource for developing gardens as part of school curriculum. Joseph City School District Superintendent Bryan Field (left) listens as UofA special instructor Katie Kirkwood (right) provides him with insight for the gardens planned for the district’s elementary and high school by showing him the garden grown behind the extension office.

By Linda Kor

With concerns regarding access to nutritional foods and overall health, the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, with offices in Navajo and Apache counties, and the Navajo County Public Health District are utilizing a SNAP Ed (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education) grant to educate kids and adults about good food and good eating. The grant is funded through the U.S Department of Agriculture Farm Bill and run through the Arizona Nutrition Network, a division of the Arizona Department of Health Services.

The funding serves the entire county, and focuses on school health and active living. “The ultimate goal is to encourage an increase in healthy eating and physical activity, with the end goal of increasing sustainability and healthy overall habits for our community members,” said Coordinator Margine Bawden, who oversees programs in both Navajo and Apache counties.

One of the objectives is to provide availability and access to fresh fruits and vegetables to the schools and in the home. “If fresh fruits and vegetables are unavailable either because they live on the Navajo Nation and it’s not feasible or practical for them to get to (the grocery store), then we teach them ways they can use canned or frozen foods; making use of the items that are in their commodity foods box,” said Bawden.

One food staple she cited was dried beans. “We often see dried beans being distributed through a food box of food pantry. But we have seen an increase in the number of people who don’t know how or what to do with them. To provide that type of information on how to use them makes them a viable source for nutrition,” she said.

Depending on the setting, a food demonstration or tasting is done at food pantries so those getting the food can see how to use it to make nutritious meals. Bawden’s team also introduces new foods to kids in schools. “We have a lot of squash and zucchini that have come out of our garden here at the Navajo County Cooperative Extension Office, and we used that during the Back to School event at Park Elementary School (in Holbrook) to tie in both our garden and the garden at their school to increase the community and parents’ awareness of the gardening activities that are going on in both locations,” said Bawden.

The grant also provides assistance for schools wanting to develop their own garden. An example is the garden at Park School that began two years ago. “They had container gardens and were struggling with keeping the plants alive. They came to us and we helped them with technical assistance, such as letting them know they weren’t providing enough water, the type of drip system they should use instead of a hose, that sort of thing,” she said.

In the second year, they worked with the school to change from containers to raised bed gardens. “They were more accessible and easier to maintain for the school and the students,” she said. They also provided instruction on how to build the raised beds and what could be used to improve the soil. “The school contributed the dirt and we did what is called a lasagna bed garden, using compostable material such as shredded paper and cardboard to build the beds to ensure the soil is strong enough, nutrient dense to support the garden activities,” explained Bawden.

They also provide direct education classes for students in kindergarten through second grade using the Growing Healthy Habits curriculum, an evidence based curriculum that has been vetted by the Arizona Nutrition Network. “We provide structured lessons to the students on gardening based activities, tying in a nutrition component as well. We talk about the parts of the plant and what they need to grow. There’s a lot of science tie in, so it really helps teachers as far as making science more practical and more hands on while still tying in that Common Core element that teachers really want to see happen if they are giving up part of their class time,” she said.

How often they go into the schools depends on factors within the school, the curriculum and the growing season for the different environments. For Holbrook, Bawden anticipates 10 instructional visits this year.

An important aspect of the services being provided is sustainability. As a grant funded program, there is the possibility that someday that funding will go away. Bawden wants to ensure that those schools being served will be able to continue their gardens and education long after the program is gone. “It’s tying in the direct education piece, but also how to maintain, sustain and grow it on your own,” said Bawden, noting that Park School officials have already sought additional funding such as grants and donations to ensure that the garden is not a short term project and can be sustained.

It’s also important that parents and caregivers take an active, positive role. “I went to assist my staff with a tasting and we made veggie pizza with zucchini and with eggplant. As a child who did not like eggplant or zucchini, I was concerned that it was not going to go over well and be well received, but the children loved it and were asking for seconds. So, the important thing is that we as adults serve as a role model and if we come in and say, ‘You’re not going to like it,’ chances are that we are going to influence them and they aren’t going to like it before they even try.”

The grant goes beyond food pantries and school gardens to also provide free summer meals for kids. “People need to remember that in order to take advantage of the summer meals the child doesn’t need to be enrolled at that school. So parents in Joseph City can bring their child to Holbrook for meals,” she said. She explained that for many kids their only source of nutrition is the meals they receive at school, so providing meals during the summer months can make a serious difference.

While the UofA Cooperative Extension provides these services throughout both counties, the funding it receives is split with the Navajo County Public Health District, with each entity assigned its own areas. The Snowflake School District is part of the health district’s service area and receives similar services through it.

The services go even further. For example, the Holbrook School District has developed a wellness committee that Bawden has been asked to be a part of. “That looks at total school health, with gardening being a small piece of that,” she noted.

To learn more about the programs being offered through the UofA Cooperative Extension Office, contact Bawden by phone at (602) 309-1822 or email at mbasden@cals.arizona.edu.