Healthy Eating, Garden-Style

Howard University Doctors Plant Gardens in Wards 7 and 8

Nailah Muhammad, the youngest, and her older brother, Ameer Muhammad, gently cover up one of the vegetable plants. They planted tomatoes, basil, cucumbers, peans and beans. They also planted mint to keep bothersome insects away.

Ad campaigns and public service announcements can be effective in getting a message across, but Howard University doctors wanted to do more to spread the word about the link between healthy eating and good health.

Families in wards 7 and 8 with kindergarten- and elementary-aged children who responded to the call were able to have gardens installed at their homes or apartments this summer. In its second year, the My Garden Project has served more than 50 families. Howard University physicians from the departments of pediatrics, community and family medicine, and orthopedics planted free gardens of tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, and other vegetables that do not require a lot of work.

According to Dr. Mark Johnson, Dean of Howard University College of Medicine and founder of the My Garden Project, “all healthcare starts with a healthy diet. Unfortunately, sometimes families, particularly children, don’t have enough fruits and vegetables in their diets. The problem is even more significant in some of Washington’s food deserts.” As a child Dr. Johnson used to help with his grandmother’s garden.

The program is designed to use gardens to teach children about the importance of healthy eating and the joy of watching fruits and vegetables grow. “This project is an opportunity for kids to discover the joy of gardening early, which usually for most people doesn’t happen until later in life,” said Ionnie McNeill, the My Garden Project’s coordinator. “It gives kids the opportunity to gain a sense of responsibility in terms of being able to care for a living thing and be a part of the process of providing for themselves. They don’t think about that process because it’s usually the parents making sure they have meals and clothing.”

Jessica Silva, who lives in an apartment, was glad they were able to accommodate her living situation. Her garden was planted right outside the apartment’s front door. “I was happy to be a part of a program that was designed to teach children about healthy foods. It was also free of charge and the materials were brought to your door,” she said. “How easy was that!”

Silva’s son Ifasen had been asking for a garden for some time and is now in charge of its care, including the watering and weeding. “He's learned how he can care for his own garden and help it to grow and produce foods that he can eat, enjoy, and share,” said Silva. The family is already enjoying the garden’s bounty including fresh mint tea from mint and fresh basil in a variety of dishes. “There is a good-sized tomato growing now that we are waiting to taste,” said Silva. Ifasen is particularly fond of the aromas emanating from the garden. “I like having my own garden. I really like to smell the basil and the mint,” he remarked. 

Jennifer Muhammad, a busy mother of four, wanted her children to participate in this program to prevent childhood obesity. “It is important to introduce children to healthy eating at a young age. Childhood obesity can be prevented by eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, along with exercise. I also wanted my children to participate so that they could be empowered and shown how to grow their own food, right in their backyard.”

Another benefit of participating in the My Garden Project for the Muhammad family was the opportunity to see doctors as real people. “We also liked the very personal side of the program. My children are used to seeing doctors in the office, in a fairly formal setting. By coming to our home, it made the doctors more accessible and showed the children that the Howard physicians, who looked like them, cared about their well-being enough to come and plant a garden.”

Kaleem Muhammad, age seven, was excited about the growing process. “Look mommy, I can see the peppers and tomatoes growing! We can grow our own food and eat it at home!” The Muhammad family’s oldest son Zahir picked herbs and vegetables from the garden and helped his mom prepare a vegetarian meal. “My children have felt so proud about their garden. My son Ameer goes out each day and waters it himself, without any prompting. They love the sign with their names on it. Each of the children has gone out to pick basil for dinner meals. Each day, when we come in they check the garden and can see the different stages of growth of the crops,” said Muhammad. “I cannot describe the pride that this has brought to my children. Hats off to Howard University for instilling the love of agriculture in our community. I am sure my four children will continue growing food and providing their families with nutrient rich food for generations to come.”

Monica Z. Utsey is a freelance writer and president of the Southern DC Chapter of Mocha Moms, Inc., www.mochamoms.org.


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