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You can plant broccoli.

You don’t have to like it.

Quincy Cage, a Sherman Middle School sixth-grader, has enjoyed UW-Madison’s GardenFit program, fighting off mosquitoes and unwanted extra pounds that pile on over a lazy summer, learning how to grow and cook good food, getting off the couch.

Hoeing and harvesting at the East High School Youth Farm in Kennedy Park, he’s discovered he likes purple onions and other things he’s helped grow.

The yuckiest vegetable of Quincy’s summer? “I would have to say broccoli.”

Sarah Jacquart, a nutritional sciences graduate student who runs the program, said the approximately dozen middle school participants aren’t trying to lose weight. “We’re trying to prevent that rapid three- or six-pound weight gain that others have seen,” Jacquart said.

The summer gain is one more bulge in the national trend toward childhood obesity. Today’s 12-year-olds are 15 pounds heavier than their 1960 peers on average. Nearly one-third of children and teens in America are now overweight, researchers say.

In Wisconsin, 14 percent of children are overweight, and another 11 percent are obese, said Dr. Aaron Carrell, associate professor of pediatrics at American Family Children’s Hospital.

A child is considered overweight when body mass index (BMI) is above the 85th percentile for age and gender, Carrell said, and a child is considered obese when body mass index (BMI) is above the 95th percentile for age and gender. “The ‘number’ is different for boys and girls at different ages,” he said.

GardenFit got started when Jacquart’s adviser, UW-Madison nutritional scientist Dale Schoeller, met with UW-Madison physician Alexandra Adams to try to find a way to prevent summertime weight gain.

Students were recruited from the Goodman Community Center, Jacquart said.

“This is my thesis research project, trying to see the effects of physical activity and a change of diet — for sure, fruits and vegetables and more of them — on summer weight gain,” Jacquart said. “I hope it has a lasting impact on their lives.”

The students have weeded, dug furrows and heaped ridges, planted seedlings and watered them, and spread hay and wood chips to keep down weeds, she said. They’ve also picked ripe produce for the Goodman Community Center’s food pantry. 

Adams, who runs a pediatric obesity clinic, said programs like GardenFit can have a real impact.  “We hope that such programs, which are expanding around the country, will begin to teach kids about eating fruits and vegetables and to appreciate real food which is so essential to weight maintenance and obesity prevention lifelong,” she said in an e-mail Thursday.

The idea for GardenFit sprouted after so many kids being treated at the clinic returned in September having gained 10 or more pounds over the summer as they were sitting around eating and playing video games and not outside being active, Adams said.

Schoeller said projects like this work. “Gardening has been shown, in several studies, to change children’s attitudes toward fruits and vegetables,” he said. “They enjoy eating the ‘fruits of their labors’ and take new interest in eating a diversity of foods. They are more willing to try new fruits and vegetables and to eat the more common produce.”

Carrell said he’s also working with a statewide program called “Got Dirt?” establishing school and community gardens and studying their effect on childhood health. “Consistent eating of fruits and vegetables has been shown to be an effective way to decrease obesity,” he said.

Meanwhile, Infinity Gamble, a sixth-grader at O’Keeffe Middle School, seemed enthused on a steamy Wednesday morning when the heat was rising and the bugs were biting. “It’s fun,” she said, “and we get to learn new recipes for kids to get really fit and healthy, harvesting and gathering all the new foods that you haven’t even heard of.”

Kale’s her favorite. “I never even heard the word before,” she said. “It’s pretty good.”

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