Gardens Changing Health
by Mariah Marten-Ray - EarthGenius Garden Educator
One lunchtime recess, I was conversing with a one-on-one educator for a special education student, Paul (we've changed his name here), who is fascinated by biology and the garden. Paul always corrects my terminology about plants--he says, “Ms. Mariah, do you mean female and male kiwis? It’s not correct to call them boy and girl”. I’m the FoodCorps AmeriCorps service member at three PRJUSD schools, and I have the great joy of exploring school gardens with so many bright children like Paul. I express to the one-on-one educator how exciting it will be for him to get to harvest what he has planted come spring time! “You would think that”, she begins, “but I’ve never seen him touch a fruit or a vegetable. He only eats pretzels for lunch”. When I offered for Paul to pick and try some of the lettuce, he politely declined.
Neophobia, the fear of trying new foods, is a leading cause of mealtime battles with children. A child with special needs may face even more specific barriers leading them to have a complex relationship with food. For example, it is common for children with autism spectrum disorder to have heightened sensitivities to particular tastes, textures, or colors. Promoting positive nutrition behaviors in special needs children is an important part of their growth into confident, happy, and healthy adults. Partnering with Mrs. Keefer’s learning center, a special needs classroom, we began a creative writing food journaling program that gives kids fun opportunities to read, write, cook, and try new fruits and vegetables in a supportive outdoor learning environment. The following is a story written by a student about passion fruit. The prompt was to give passion fruit a new fun name and origin to entice the reader’s appetite:
Slimy Fish Egg Fruit
Once upon a time in a land far far away slimy fish egg fruit floated through outer space and into the ocean. Seahorse farmers looked inside of the fruit and said it looked like fish eggs and decided to grow the ugly fruit because maybe fish would grow. Fish did not grow out of the eggs. They were still happy because when they ate the fruit it was sour and delicious.
Journaling also allows time for the children to reflect on their feelings about trying new things and techniques they use to overcome fears so they can apply these tools to new situations. Paul, who used to only eat pretzels wrote, “I was nervous to try the passion fruit. It looked like guts on the inside. I gave it a shot because it was rare and now it is my number 1 favorite fruit.” Now Paul and his mom are growing a passion fruit vine at their house! Another student read to the class, “The first time I tried mushrooms we put them on my favorite food ever, hotdogs, and I took a deep breath. Now I just take a deep breath every time my mom wants me to try something new.”
We believe that small nibbles out in the garden can lead to a lifelong love of fruit and vegetables.