Pat, an energetic grandmother in her 70’s, has loved gardening ever
since she can remember. Her own grandparents were farmers in Montana
and her father always had a garden when Pat was growing up.
“I used to help with the harvesting, like snap peas and raspberries,” says Pat.
Now, although she lives in an apartment in La Mesa, she continues using her green thumb to grow plants such as herbs and tomatoes.
Pat also loves children. Grandmother of twelve and great grandmother of seven, she relishes this time in her life.
“I was born to be a grandma!” she declares.
Imagine her delight when her walking partner, Lydia, told her about an innovative project in East County that blends Pat’s two loves: gardens and kids.
In 2012, Cuyamaca College in El Cajon began work on a pilot Five & Fit program, made possible through funding from the County of San Diego’s Aging & Independence Services. This program, developed at Temple University, addresses childhood obesity in two unique ways.
First of all, Five & Fit targets pre-schoolers, a critical population given that an estimated 20 to 30 percent of children between the ages of two and five in the U.S. are overweight or at risk of becoming overweight. The rate of obesity has more than doubled for this age group over the past 30 years. Research has shown, however, that early childhood is an optimal time for influencing children’s attitudes about nutritious food choices and facilitating healthy weight over a lifetime.
The other distinct feature of Five & Fit is that the program utilizes an intergenerational approach. Thus, older adults (age 55+) are engaged in the efforts to support preschool-age children and their families in making healthy decisions. This is where Pat comes into the picture.
When the Cuyamaca College Five & Fit project first got underway, Pat joined the effort as a volunteer.
“It was a natural fit for me,” she says.
Now, two years later, she enthusiastically continues her work alongside six other “Garden Grannies,” as they call themselves. Their mission is to teach the children between the ages of three and five year who attend the College’s Child Development Center about healthy nutrition and the importance of physical activity. Pat and Lydia have now been joined by Minia, a new volunteer; they make up the “Morning Glory Team.” Darlene, Suzanne, and Gloria are the “Sunbeam Team”. Together with their Lead Volunteer, Jamillah - another long-time gardener and grandmother - these women are a force to be reckoned with in the fight against childhood obesity.
The Five & Fit program model includes a multi-faceted approach. One of the primary tasks is to teach the children more about healthy fruits and vegetables.
“We let them cut up the food, set the table, and dish up their food,” says Pat. “We let them participate. If you let them participate, you teach them more.”
The “Grannies” use magnifying glasses to let the kids see seeds up close. They count the vitamin content in certain foods using colorful cards and look at maps to see where different healthy foods come from.
Along with learning to identify more fruits and vegetables, the children are also encouraged to taste them. This is where the creativity of Pat and the other “Grannies” really comes into play. For example, the month of May is cucumber month.
“We’re planning to make dinosaur sandwiches,” says Pat. “We’ll cut the cucumbers really thin and use cookie cutters to shape the sandwiches like dinosaurs.”
Another aid in getting the kids to try new foods is what Pat calls the “magic elixir:” ranch dressing.
And, of course, the children love to go out and dig in the dirt. The preschoolers help to plant flowers and vegetables in various areas outside the Center, including in raised gardening beds designed for them to use. A large Intergenerational Garden, complete with “Pumpkin Hill,” has also been created as part of the project.
Recently, the children helped plant a donated grapefruit tree there.
As can sometimes be the case, building trusting relationships can take a little time. For example, some of the children were initially hesitant to participate with the “Garden Grannies;” now, however, the kids are jumping up and down when the “Grannies” arrive.
Involving the children’s busy parents is an important and sometimes challenging step in this model as well. Family engagement plays a critical role in promoting healthy habits in the home. Food harvested in the Center’s gardens is cleaned and put out in baskets for families to take home. Children also take home healthy recipes, such as one for a vegetable soup the children recently helped prepare on site.
The benefits of all these efforts extend beyond the children and their families. The “Garden Grannies” themselves reap many rewards. For example, Pat notes how one of her fellow volunteers is now trying more nutritious foods herself and is also sharing healthy ideas with her own grandson.
“It just spreads,” says Pat.
Recognizing the value of the Five & Fit program, the First 5 Commission has provided funding for a second program now underway at Vista Square at Chula Vista Elementary School District. This expansion of the pilot project provides an opportunity to reach even more children and families.
Pat is certainly a believer in the program.
“That little hour you get with those little faces and you see the light bulb go on - it is just amazing,” she says.
For more information about Five & Fit and other intergenerational programs within the County of San Diego, please email Pam Plimpton, Intergenerational Coordinator at Aging & Independence Services or call 858.495.5769.
Written by Pam Plimpton, Intergenerational Coordinator at Aging & Independence Services