“I’ve Never Tried That Before:” The Story Behind One Afterschool Garden

school garden boy

“I’ve never tried that before,” said Jane* before she ate a fresh bell pepper from the Cambridge 4-H Afterschool garden located in Cocoa, Florida.  Jane lives in Cocoa and joined the Afterschool Garden Club as part of the 21st Century Community Learning Center Programs (CCLC) programs. Cambridge Elementary represents an ethnically diverse, low income, at-risk school site. Youth face daily challenges such as lack of adequate nutrition, bullying, and violence. By introducing youth to choices they can make to be healthier and happier, coupled with finding an outlet for behavior change, youth are given an opportunity to be a part of positive youth development (PYD).  Youth who participate in programs with a PYD emphasis contribute more to their family and community, and state they are more likely to attend college (Lerner et al, 2008).

The garden at Cambridge maintains four 4 ft. by 8 ft. raised garden beds to help teach gardening skills, healthy living, and introduce physical activity. Youth start the 4-H year by planting tomatoes, lettuce, and herbs in the fall. As the weather gets colder they plant broccoli, cauliflower, eggplant, and other cold weather crops. Almost all of the harvest is sampled on-site for tasting; some goes home to the youth members and their families.  Besides having an opportunity to plant the garden, youth also learn the science behind growing vegetables and how to prepare the vegetables in a healthy way.  Encouraging youth to become familiar with new, healthy foods is an effective way of getting them to eat those foods on a regular basis. Furthermore, students tell their parents what they’ve learned, bring home the leftover vegetables, and share with their families.  Whether it is an entirely new vegetable to them, or one they have never eaten in its raw form, or one they never prepared, eating each nutritional fresh vegetables is a new experience for many students.  Again and again, they reiterate, “I’ve never tried that before.”

Before the gardens were built and the program started, a few key factors were considered:

  • Securing the “champion” for the garden.  This person is the point of contact and communication and assists throughout the garden season when necessary.
  • Selecting the location of the garden: proximity to water, hours of sunlight, and visibility were evaluated upon site visits.
  • Growing the garden: seeds were started on site but were then maintained at the Extension office greenhouse to insure growth and success. They were then returned to the schools for transplanting.

Youth in grades k-6th were targeted for this enrichment, using the curriculum Junior Master Gardener Program: Learn, Eat, Grow and Go!  4-H clubs are formed at each site, with a 4-H Agent visiting each site once a month to teach a lesson, build the garden, and reinforce monthly lessons. Teams at each site are responsible for taking care of the garden and continued teaching of the healthy living lessons.  To date, each site maintains four raised garden beds that are 4 feet by 8 feet. 

The soil is organic mushroom compost and gets delivered by dump truck to each site.  Youth construct the garden beds and move the soil into the beds. 

Youth who participate in 4-H Gardening Clubs learn important STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) and healthy living skills.  Studies have found that, “gardening can be an effective strategy to increase school children’s knowledge and preferences for fruits and vegetables (Poston et al, 2005).” Research has also shown that multi-faceted programs (such as ones that incorporate gardening, nutrition, and physical activity), lead to “improvements in BMI, blood pressure, and academic scores, among low-income Hispanic and White children in particular…Holistic school-based obesity prevention interventions can improve health outcomes and academic performance, in particular among high-risk populations (Hollar et al., 2010).” 

Starting a garden is no small task but there are a myriad of helpful resources out there to help schools, starting with local Extension offices.  Horticulturists and youth development specialists (4-H Agents), are ready and available to assist with curriculum (Junior Master Gardener, 4-H curriculum), volunteer help (through Master Gardeners), knowledge, and experience.  Contact your local office today to help you get started, so youth can start sharing “the very first time” they’ve tried a vegetable in your area.

*Name changed

Read more about school gardens here!


Vanessa Spero-Swingle, University of Florida Extension 


Lerner, R.M., Lerner, J.V., Phelps, E., et al. (2008).  The Positive Development of Youth:  The 4-H Study of Positive Youth Development: Report of the Findings from the First Four Waves of Data Collection: 2002-2006.  Tufts University, Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development.

Poston, S.,Shoemaker,C., and Dzewaltowski., D.  (2005)  A Comparison of a Gardening and Nutrition Program with a Standard Nutrition Program in an Out-of-school Setting. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.

Hollar, D., Messiah, S.,, Lopez-Mitnik, G., Hollar, TL., Almon, M., Agatston, A.  (2010). Effect of a two-year obesity prevention intervention on percentile changes in body mass index and academic performance in low-income elementary school children.  Am J Public Health.  2010 Apr;100(4):646-53.