By Cara Rosenbloom

The Washington Post

The most common question I’m asked by parents is, “How can I get my kid to eat vegetables?”

My usual advice is to provide ample opportunity for children to try a variety of veggies and to ensure they see their parents eating vegetables, too.

Lately I’ve been adding a new suggestion to my list of tips: Start a school garden. Schools nationwide are enlisting dietitians to plant gardens, teach cooking classes and train teachers with nutrition education.

According to the Farm to School Census, more than 7,000 school gardens have cropped up across the United States.

In addition to reading and writing, children who attend these schools are being taught how to grow and prepare kale, asparagus and zucchini. In an era when Americans take in 57 percent of calories from ultra-processed foods such as chips, candy and baked goods, it’s vital for children to learn about, and appreciate, fresh food options.

Jen Brewer, a registered dietitian with the garden program at Folwell Elementary in Rochester, Minnesota, has seen firsthand that being involved in planting and tending a garden can make children more likely to try (and like!) vegetables.

“There is great satisfaction that comes to students when they get to eat what was simply a seed a few weeks ago,” Brewer says.

Dishes such as basil pesto and green smoothies get rave reviews, even from the nonvegetable lovers.

“I’ve had many converts to spinach by way of smoothies,” Brewer says. “When I pour it, there are usually many moans and groans, followed by, ‘OK, I’ll just take one sip.’ Then I hear, ‘Wow! This is good! Can I get the recipe?’ “

School gardens offer hands-on learning for children, who get right into the dirt and observe everything from seeding to harvesting, which helps them understand how food grows.

“Kids learn the power of patience and natural consequences,” Brewer says. “They can’t Google a bean to sprout. They learn that you don’t plant a seed one day and eat the produce the next, and that there are steps that can’t be rushed. This is one of the most powerful lessons that can be taught to a generation who has instant access to most everything imaginable.”

Gardens can offer other lessons.

Dietitian Stefanie Dove, the coordinator of marketing and community outreach for Loudoun County Public Schools in Virginia, trains teachers to integrate school gardens into the classroom curriculum.

“I work with teachers to connect the school garden with subjects from culinary arts, math and plant science to foreign languages,” Dove says.

Children learn about healthy eating, cooking and environmental sustainability while incorporating math, reading and science.

“Some of our physical-education teachers incorporate gardening into their gym classes to demonstrate to students that exercise can come in all forms,” Dove says.

If such ideas appeal to you, but there’s no garden at your school, these dietitians say it’s easy to get one started.

Build a team

“The number one reason school gardens fail is that a single parent or teacher tries to conquer it alone,” Dove says. It’s a fair amount of work, so you need a team approach. Have one leader and build a network around them, including students.

Make connections

Ask the school nutrition department in your district to see if support is available. Use the resources from Farm to School, a networking hub for school gardens.

Brewer says many states have a school garden convention that meets in the winter, which is a great place to network and learn what works best in your climate.

Try to source funding

Through community partnerships, her program has distributed more than 150 hydroponic garden towers to classrooms and provided more than $15,000 in funding, Dove says.

Ask local farms, grocery stores, and community businesses to help, or see if grants are available in your district.

Have a summer plan

Most outdoor garden growth happens during the off-school months, so have families sign up for time slots to be in charge of weeding and watering the garden.

They can pick vegetables to take home to enjoy.