As a child, Jennifer Dunn only liked three vegetables and one fruit.

"It was not until I got to college that I decided to try new things and realized that I could like them. It took some adjustment, but eventually I adopted a vegetarian diet and it changed my life. I felt so much healthier," she explains.

Now, Dunn spends her days encouraging children to try healthy foods through her work as nutrition coordinator at the A.G. Gaston Boys & Girls Club. With help from the American Heart Association, in the fall Dunn launched the club's heart healthy teaching garden.

It's also one of the first three AHA garden projects in Alabama. The gardens were funded through the United Way of Central Alabama, and others are located at Center Point Elementary School and Our Lady of Fatima Catholic School. Each of the locations are within an area where fresh food is not readily available, provide free and reduced lunches to children and serve children in moderate- to low-income households. Because of their limited access to fresh foods, statistics indicate that these children are at high risk for childhood obesity and the number of health problems that follow.

"I want to give these kids exposure to vegetables, even if they don't like them right away," Dunn says. "At least they've been introduced to the idea and might come back to it later."

The garden is situated in what was previously an empty field adjacent to the Ensley-based center. Beds of lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and other vegetables beckon to the children. During the fall semester, Dunn saw 40 kids sign up for the program. The students, who are mostly between ages 8 and 10, helped plant, maintain and harvest the crops. In between work tasks, Dunn and volunteers shared lessons about how a garden grows, nutrition and more. That created opportunities not only to learn science and math, but also teamwork and listening skills.

"If some of them just learn how to be kinder to each other, take direction and teamwork, I'd be happy," Dunn says. But she also points out that research indicates kids who have a role in growing things are more open to trying them — and that's been her experience.

When lettuce was ready to harvest late in the year, Dunn transitioned the lesson into the kitchen. There, she and the students made smoothies, salad and vinaigrette that included herbs from the herb garden. Students took leftovers home, thereby engaging their parents in the garden's mission.
"The kids I work with are a population at greater risk for hypertension and chronic diseases," Dunn says. "I would love to divert some of them from heading this direction."

That's the American Heart Association's goal, too. More than one-third of American children are overweight, which increases the risk of heart disease. Developing good eating habits at a young age reduces a child's likelihood of encountering such problems in the future.

The teaching garden tool kit includes materials for garden construction plus lesson plans and community resources. Dunn, who is a dietician, is developing additional plans and working with community members to extend the children's understanding. For example, the fall group took a field trip to Jones Valley Teaching Farm so the students could see the possibilities.

"Lifelong habits are created during childhood, and the American Heart Association wants to help children get on the right path early so they can make healthy eating choices," says Rachael Wilson, communications director at the greater southeast affiliate of the American Heart Association. "We also believe students can use these healthy eating habits to empower their family and friends at home."

The program will continue in the spring, with children working in the garden two days a week. As additional produce is ready for harvest, Dunn hopes to incorporate more of it into the club's snack program. She'd also like to explore starting a community garden, inviting others in the neighborhood to grow fruits and vegetables in the expansive space.

For now, though, Dunn is happy to develop young people's interest in healthy food, one seed at a time.