UCCE engages a school community to increase the use of a school garden, promoting school and community health and wellness, and shaping future leaders.

Dec 9, 2022

UCCE partners with a school site to promote health and wellness and develop student leaders. As a result of the program, 92% of students reported gaining skills in teaching others.

The issue

Studies show that school gardens support student health through increased physical activity, increased consumption of healthy foods, and decreased body mass index. School gardens are also associated with positive emotions and social interactions. Additionally, school gardens have the potential to improve students' leadership skills and teamwork abilities. CalFresh Healthy Living, UCCE (CFHL,UCCE) in Santa Barbara County partners with schools to gather stakeholders, create plans, fundraise, and build, maintain and teach in school gardens. One partnering school, Hapgood Elementary, has a flourishing garden that has been expanded and maintained over several years.

How UC Delivers

As COVID-19 restrictions at schools began to ease, UCCE garden nutrition educator Abbi Marrs reached out to the student leadership class to see if there was interest in developing leadership skills related to nutrition and food production in their school garden. Over 30 student leaders expressed interest in learning more about the garden. With the support of the school administration, UCCE staff met with the students to provide support and training related to growing food, composting, garden maintenance, and teaching in the garden. Throughout these trainings, UCCE staff worked with the youth to make decisions related to what they wanted to do with their new skills to support the garden. One group decided to focus on building more awareness of their garden by providing school garden tours. Another group decided to focus on supporting school and family health by providing garden enhanced nutrition education lessons in the garden.

UCCE staff supported youth by facilitating school garden training, helping write scripts for the garden tours, training in Teams With Intergenerational Support (TWIGS) curriculum, and practicing presentations. On April 15th, 2022, 26 youth delivered a garden tour to other youth, teachers, families, and community members. The mayor and city staff were invited to attend, and youth had the opportunity to share their garden and how it impacts their learning and health. In addition, 10 lessons were taught to 211 students in grades TK-6th.

Additionally, eight student leaders shared their garden experience while presenting at the 2022 California Agriculture in the Classroom Conference in September. Student leaders worked with UCCE staff to develop a presentation focused on the responsibilities of a garden student leader. The topics included: how the garden youth leader program started, garden jobs, composting, working with hydroponic towers, working with food service staff, safe harvesting practices, and how to teach garden-based and nutrition education lessons. During the presentation, student leaders shared their favorite parts of working in the garden. Some answers included teaching younger students about the garden, learning healthy recipes, and learning more about gardening in general. Student leaders then delivered a condensed version of the “Pest or Pal” lesson from the TWIGS garden-based curriculum to over fifty attendees. The presentation concluded with question-and-answers and students answered questions such as the biggest challenge they faced working in the garden, their favorite foods to grow, and how working in the garden has helped develop them as leaders.

The Impact

Youth leaders completed the Youth Leader Retrospective survey at the end of the school year (n=26). This survey asks participants to reflect on changes they see in themselves due to their participation in programming. Questions ask about behavior changes related to safely preparing and cooking healthy foods, leadership skills gained, and support received from adult facilitators.

For healthy behaviors, students agreed or strongly agreed, due to their participation in the UCCE Student Leaders Garden Committee: I wash my hands frequently (100%), my family has purchased healthier foods (92%), my family has prepared healthier foods (88%).

For leadership skills, youth retrospectively rated their ability before and after the program using a 4-point scale from No Ability to Excellent Ability. Improvement was observed in all leadership skills assessed, including the ability to work as a team member, speak before a group, teach others, and plan programs. The biggest change was observed in their ability to teach others. Prior to the program, only 1 (4%) youth reported an Excellent Ability, and 11 (42%) reported Good Ability. After the program, 11 (42%) rated themselves as having Excellent Ability and 13 (50%) rated themselves Good Ability. In addition, 0 youth rated themselves as No Ability after participating in the program, compared to 5 (19%) before the program.

For program support, youth agreed or strongly agreed with the following statements: There were dedicated adults who supported me as a youth leader (100%), I received ongoing training and support throughout the program (88%), The program made sure I had everything I needed to be successful as a youth leader (100%).

As a result of the garden tours, the Lompoc City Council adopted a school garden resolution that states the importance of school gardens to student health and the commitment of the city to support school gardens. Youth attended the council meeting and their school was gifted an apricot tree and the principal hosted a tree planting ceremony with students and family members. UCCE plans to work with student leaders next school year with 6th grade student leaders taking on the responsibility of training 5th grade student leaders. This peer to peer model will create a solid foundation for garden program sustainability for years to come. Lastly, when asked about the student youth leader the city mayor stated:

“I am so impressed with the students and the garden at Hapgood! Their passion for growing food was evident as the young scholars taught us about composting and what each part of the plant contributes to in its growth. I want to thank the UC CalFresh Education Program, all the parents and volunteers as well as the staff at Hapgood for supporting such an awesome learning experience in how our food grows.”- Lompoc City Mayor 

Through this partnership, CFHL, UCCE in Santa Barbara contributes to improved food security and health for the local community, and guides students to become effective public leaders.  



By Shannon Klisch
By Abbi Marrs
Author - Community Education Specialist 2
By Mishelle Petit
Author - Community Education Supervisor I
By Rosa Vargas