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Hands-on childcare garden intervention: A randomized controlled trial to assess effects on fruit and vegetable identification, liking, and consumption among children aged 3–5  years in North Carolina

Authors: Nilda G. Cosco, Nancy M. Wells, Daowen Zhang, L. Suzanne Goodell, Muntazar Monsur, Tong Xu, Robin C. Moore.

Abstract: Gardening at childcare centers may have a potent influence on young children’s learning about fruits and vegetables and their development of healthy dietary behaviors. This randomized controlled trial examined the effect of a garden intervention on fruit and vegetable (FV) identification, FV liking, and FV consumption among 3–5-year-old children enrolled in childcare centers in Wake County, North Carolina, USA. Eligible childcare centers (serving primarily low-income families) were randomly selected and then randomly assigned to one of three groups: (1) intervention; (2) waitlist-control that served as a control in year 1 and received the intervention in year 2; or (3) no-intervention control. From the 15 participating childcare centers, 285 children aged 3–5  years were consented by their parents or guardians to participate. The intervention comprised six standardized, raised, mulched garden beds, planted with warm-season annual vegetables and fruits, and perennial fruits. A Gardening Activity Guide describing 12 age-appropriate, sequential gardening activities was distributed for teachers to lead hands-on gardening activities during the growing season. Data were gathered between Spring 2018 and Fall 2019. FV identification and liking were measured using an age-appropriate tablet-enabled protocol. FV consumption was measured by weighing each child’s fruit and vegetable snack tray before and after tasting sessions. Compared to children receiving no-intervention, children who received the garden intervention showed a greater increase in accurate identification of both fruits and vegetables as well as consumption of both fruit and vegetables during the tasting sessions. Consistent with prior research, the effects on fruit consumption were greater than on vegetable consumption. There was no significant effect of the garden intervention on children’s FV liking. Garden interventions implemented early in life foster learning about FV and promote healthy eating. Early exposure to gardening may yield a return on investment throughout the lifecourse, impacting healthy diet and associated health outcomes, which are particularly important within disadvantaged communities where children’s health is challenged by a host of risk factors. Clinical Trials Registration #NCT04864574 (clinicaltrials.gov).