HEbD Buffalo: Growing Healthy Students and Communities

OaklandSummertime in East Buffalo means getting dirty and getting healthy. Growing Green, a summer garden program of the Massachusetts Avenue Project (MAP), promotes healthy eating and gives neighborhood kids a fun, educational summer pastime. Though the Growing Green summer program has been successful for many years, a recent community needs assessment found that more programs were needed to keep children engaged during the school year as well. In response, MAP joined forces with the Buffalo Healthy Eating by Design (HEbD) partnership to make the Growing Green program available year round.

The pilot project provided an opportunity for MAP and the Buffalo HEbD partnership to transform the Growing Green summer program into a school-based after school gardening program. It was piloted at Bennett Park Montessori School (BPM), a public school located on Buffalo’s East Side which is an area with particularly poor access to healthy food options. BPM was also chosen as the project site because its Montessori philosophy supports outdoor learning, and the student body represents a range of income levels, as well as racial and ethnic diversity. A school garden was established along with an integrated curriculum to teach students basic knowledge of nutrition, gardening, and local food systems. “Food & Fun” workshops provided in-depth healthy eating education and experiences for 11-13 year olds once a week after school. The workshops, which were led by Growing Green summer program graduates, provided students with hands-on experiences in growing, cooking, and eating healthy foods.

The partnership hopes to translate some of the summer program’s successes into the new year round program. One of the program’s ultimate strengths is its strategic placement of youth in the position of role models. The partnership found that when youth are put in a position of leadership, they are more committed and invested in learning. Samina Raja, an Assistant Professor at the University of Buffalo, served as an advisor and evaluator to the HEbD Buffalo project and noted that, “The children have a different perception and understanding of the environment after going through the program.” She added, “The youth leaders from MAP offered positive peer interaction focusing on healthy eating. The informal and friendly setting encouraged BPM students to initiate conversations about unusual foods or fun snacks.” One student quipped that his mother does not want to take him shopping anymore because he only wants to buy the healthy foods.

“Now the challenge is to help the children take the lessons they have learned back to their families when they do not have the families buy-in and support. It is important that the families be a part of the process,” Raja noted. In addition to developing strategies for students to implement the healthy eating lessons at home, the partnership also plans to identify ways to overcome challenges related to safety and family responsibilities that precluded some students from participating in the after school activities, as well as issues involving access to the building after school hours. Results of a food system assessment showed that although food insecurity is a problem throughout Buffalo, access to retail healthy food options is especially poor on the city’s East Side. Thus, the partnership is also challenged with creating more healthy choices in the kid’s neighborhoods to provide environmental support to the education they are receiving.

In the face of these challenges, the Buffalo HEbD partnership continues to improve upon the Growing Green program. The program shows much promise, mostly due to the formation of strong relationships between the MAP staff who live and work in the community and the community residents. The partnership is committed to further improving the pilot program to create a model that can be implemented in other communities and schools.