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Arnold School of Public Health

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CARE evaluators, environmental health sciences researchers collaborate to support farm to school program

February 23, 2024 | Erin Bluvas,

It’s been two decades since the Arnold School’s Office for Research established the Center for Applied Research and Evaluation (CARE). Directed by Pamela Gillam, CARE’s expertise in helping partners improve their public health practices and systems across South Carolina has resulted in a reputation as problem solvers who bring stakeholders and specialists together.

Maria McClam
Maria McClam is a research associate with CARE.

When the Green Heart Project approached CARE to help them determine if their work was making a difference, CARE helped them navigate the process of finding answers. Specifically, the nonprofit organization wanted to determine if their Farm to School Program was having an impact on young students at schools in the Charleston area.

Were their school gardens and urban farms effective tools in teaching and connecting students to food, health, culture and the environment?

Established at a Title I school in a food desert to help students reconnect students with fresh, local produce in 2009, the Green Heart Project now reaches nearly 3,000 students across 18 schools each year. After more than a decade of growth and engagement it was time to assess its principal program, which takes students through the process of growing and maintaining edible crops as well and harvesting, cooking and eating them.   

They needed both evaluation and environmental expertise to answer their questions. Affiliates of the Arnold School’s Ph.D. in Environmental Health Sciences (ENHS) program, CARE research associates Maria McClam  (alumna) and Lesley Leake (current student) led the process in identifying grant opportunities to fund the evaluation.

kids washing hands
The Farm to School Program is a key component of the Green Heart Project.

They applied for and received a grant from a center for children's environmental health. ENHS professor Dwayne Porter served as principal investigator on the study – completing a three-way partnership to assess the program.

“Both Lesley and I have interests that intersect the environment and health,” McClam says. “CARE collaborates well with departments like ENHS due to the wide array of expertise and experience we all bring to the table. The Center operates with flexibility to handle a wide variety of needs, mixed methods research approaches, and community engaged/practical work.”

With funding in place, the team designed a case control study to be piloted at one of the participating schools. They also conducted a cross sectional analysis of survey responses collected by the Green Heart Project between 2017 and 2023. The collected data includes 24-hour food diaries/recall interviews, parent demographic surveys, rich picture activities and pre- and post-intervention surveys.

Lesley Leake
Lesley Leake is a CARE research associate.

Their findings revealed an overall positive effect of the Farm to School Program on students. Outcomes included increased fruit and vegetable consumption and improved positive attitudes and behaviors toward heathy eating. The research team also found a bigger impact on students from low-income schools compared to high-income schools.

“Our findings, consistent with research in the field, suggest that the Green Heart Project’s Farm to School Program improves student’s mental model of healthy food and the environment as well as their attitudes and behaviors towards fruits and vegetables,” CARE concluded in the report, which precedes three manuscripts in preparation for scientific publications that expand on these results. “Overall, the Green Heart Project is an effective and important program for students to receive in that it has a positive impact on their understanding of health in relation to food and the environment, especially for students attending low-income schools.” 

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