AHA and Aetna plant healthy eating habits in Boston

BOSTON – The American Heart Association and the Aetna Foundation teamed up Friday to foster healthier minds and bodies by building Teaching Gardens at an elementary school in East Boston and an affordable housing development in Roxbury.

The gardens at the Patrick J. Kennedy Elementary School will teach the school’s kindergarten through fifth-grade students how to plant seeds, nurture growing plants, harvest produce, and understand the value of good-eating habits.

An Aetna volunteer helps students at the Kennedy school move soil at Friday’s Teaching Gardens event.

The Teaching Gardens program at the Kennedy school is sponsored by Aetna. Rooted in the American Heart Association’s dietary recommendations for children, the school will incorporate the AHA’s Teaching Gardens lessons on nutrition, math, science and other subjects into its curriculum throughout the year.

Students at the Kennedy school started the day by working with Aetna employees to assemble nine, wooden garden planters. They then filled the planters with soil and finally planted fall vegetables, including broccoli, kale, lettuce and Brussels sprouts.

The Aetna Foundation is sponsoring a two-year, multi-phase Teaching Gardens program with eight locations in Boston, New York City, and Hartford, Conn. One of the Teaching Gardens programs also launched on Friday is at New Academy Estates in Roxbury.

Aetna employees plant vegetables in Roxbury on Friday.

New Academy Estates is in a “food desert,” said Raheem Baraka, executive director and founder at Baraka Community Wellness, which worked with the American Heart Association to choose the Teaching Gardens location in Roxbury. Baraka is going to help the AHA create a market and kitchen at New Academy Estates to educate residents on the importance of eating healthy and how to properly store and prepare the produce they grow. The residents will be helping to maintain the upkeep of the gardens, which they hope will be year-round.

“Our mission is to build a healthier world – one person, one family and one community at a time – and supporting the Teaching Gardens program is one way we are achieving that goal,” said Garth Graham, MD, MPH, president of the Aetna Foundation. “The children who participate don’t only learn about the importance of fresh, healthy food, but often share their knowledge and enthusiasm with their families, helping to improve health in their communities from the ground up.”

The American Heart Association Teaching Gardens program encompasses a core belief that when you educate children about nutritional choices, and challenge them to make small changes to improve their health, they will build a foundation of healthy habits – and even use them to empower their families at home.

“We are thrilled the Aetna Foundation will provide the support necessary to create eight Teaching Gardens and make a difference in the lives of the children in these communities,” said James Devlin, American Heart Association Vice President Founders Affiliate, eastern region. “Research shows the Teaching Gardens dramatically change the way children think about food and consume it, and those who participate in school gardening programs have a greater chance of trying and liking fruits and vegetables. These gardens provided by Aetna can make a lifelong impact on the health of those participating.”

A student at the Kennedy school helps build Teaching Gardens on Friday.

At the Kennedy school, principal Kristen Goncalves said the program will help teach the school’s 308 students what it truly means to be healthy. She said the Kennedy school is “an incredibly high poverty school” and that nearly 90 percent of the student body are English language learners.

“We’re constantly looking for real life opportunities to make things come alive for our students,” said Goncalves. “We want to make sure that our children have the same experiences and opportunities that anyone else could have. This is one of them, being able to do some hands-on work, being able to really engage in the learning process.”

The Teaching Gardens program is part of a larger American Heart Association “Healthy For Good” healthy living initiative, designed to help Americans understand what it means to be healthy, and to take-action. For more information about the Teaching Gardens program visit www.heart.org/teachinggardens.