The American Heart Association is taking a new approach in the fight against childhood obesity, with help from the Aetna Foundation, by planting community vegetables gardens in Boston.
On Thursday, Aetna employees volunteered their morning to plant a garden at Roxbury Tenants of Harvard, a non-profit organization that operates about 1,000 affordable housing units in the Longwood/Mission Hill area of Boston.
Throughout the summer, Roxbury Tenants of Harvard staff and volunteers will use the gardens to teach local children about nutrition, math, science and other subjects, all while having fun in the fresh air and working with their hands.
Giving back “is in Aetna’s DNA,” said Jaime Young, who leads the company’s community activation efforts in the Northeast.
“Food insecurity is something we see in a lot of communities, specifically Roxbury,” said Young. “This is a powerful way to get our volunteers out and understand the bigger missions that exist in our communities.”
About 20 employees from Aetna’s Burlington office helped plant the gardens on Thursday. The health insurance provider, which is based in Hartford, Conn., also has local offices in downtown Boston and Wellesley.
The planting was part of the American Heart Association’s nationwide Teaching Gardens program. Aimed at first through fifth graders, the program teaches children how to plant seeds, nurture growing plants, harvest produce and ultimately understand the value of good eating habits.
Karen T. Gately, executive director of Roxbury Tenants of Harvard, said the gardens will be used in an after-school program for children who live in the housing development. The children will be responsible for maintaining the gardens.
“It helps them to have something that’s there’s, something that’s healthy, that they can control and learn from,” said Gately. “Rather than reading about it, they’re going to actually do it, get their hands it, be a part of it, and be responsible for it.”
The gardens are being funded by the Aetna Foundation as part of a two-year, multi-phase Teaching Gardens program in Boston and Hartford. The program also included the planting of gardens at the Patrick J. Kennedy Elementary School in East Boston and New Academy Estates in Roxbury in 2017.
Obesity is one of the most expensive health care problems in America. One third of U.S. children are overweight or obese putting them at higher risk of heart disease and stroke. In 2015, 15 percent of Boston public high school students were obese, according to the city’s most recent Health of Boston report.
A higher percentage of black students were obese (17 percent) compared with white students (10 percent).
“Garden-based nutrition intervention programs encourage children to eat more fruits and vegetables,” said Jay Blackwell, executive director of the American Heart Association in Boston. “Moreover, studies show that healthy behavior positively impacts learning. When healthy students make better students, we all win.”
Young said that addressing social determinants of health – conditions in the places where people live, learn, work, and play that affect a wide range of health risks and outcomes – is paramount to building a healthier community.
“We want to create healthier communities and be part of the solution,” she said.