Award of Excellence - 2013


Grow Healthy New Jersey - a multi-faceted school project that aims to reach students, school foodservice personnel and the school community - received the 2013 NEP Award of Excellence.

Kathleen Morgan, DrMH, DTR, Chair, Family and Community Health Sciences Department, Associate Professor/County Agent II and Sherri Cirignano, MS, RD, LDN, Family & Community Health Sciences Educator/County Agent III and NEP members are recipients of the award.

Grow Healthy New Jersey combines gardening with nutrition, physical activity, and agriculture to promote locally grown foods and fruit and vegetable consumption. Fun, interactive lessons and activities link classroom education to the foods served in the cafeteria and engage the school and community in promoting local foods.

Funded through a USDA Team Nutrition Grant, Rutgers Cooperative Extension, Department of Family and Community Health Sciences and the New Jersey Department of Agriculture piloted the program in nine elementary schools in 2010 – 2012 and received continued funding for 2012-2014.

Sherri Cirgnano
Kathleen Morgan



The Family & Community Health Sciences Department (FCHS) of Rutgers Cooperative Extension works to improve the health of New Jersey individuals, families and communities by developing, conducting, and evaluating applied research and educational programs that reflect local and national needs. Through FCHS faculty positioned in multiple counties throughout the state, the school wellness initiative Grow Healthy, a USDA Team Nutrition grant, was initially implemented from 2010-2012, with re-funding from USDA currently through 2014.


Assessment of Need

At the time of the initial planning phase of Grow Healthy, the 2007 National Survey of Children’s Health by the US Department of Health and Human Services reported that New Jersey (NJ) had the 23rd highest rate of obese and overweight children ages 10-17 at 31%, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2008, 17.9% of NJ low-income preschool-aged children were overweight or obese. This was about 3% higher than the national average. At the same time, current Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) figures showed that NJ children were not meeting recommended guidelines for fruit and vegetable intake. Health impacts for overweight children are similar to those seen in adults, with rising rates of chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Reasons for these alarming weight trends include poor food choices in school and at home and lack of physical activity. Attempts have been made to address these issues in the school setting, through federal and state regulations that require schools to adopt and implement school wellness policies. One drawback of these mandates is that they do not provide funding to assist schools with implementation of school wellness policies. 

Recognizing that schools are ideal environments to foster healthy lifelong behaviors, Grow Healthy set out to address some of these barriers by providing training and assistance for nine NJ pilot schools to promote an increase in fruit and vegetable consumption, implement school wellness policies and train school nutrition professionals. The overall aim of Grow Healthy is to improve children’s health and academic performance by promoting better nutrition and physical activity in the school community through experiential learning.


Target Population

The Grow Healthy project aims to target all segments of the school community, including students, educators, administrators, school nutrition personnel, staff and parents, with an overall goal to promote school wellness. To recruit schools for the 2011-2012 school year, the project offered competitive mini-grants to elementary schools with students in kindergarten through 6th grades in nine NJ counties.

As a result, the following audiences were reached:

  • Students: 3,655
  • Foodservice professionals: 320
  • Teachers: 193
  • FCHS Wellness Champions (volunteers): 43
  • Administrators: Approximately 20
  • Parents: Approximately 1,800


Project Goals and Objectives

The 2010-2012 project had three main goals with associated objectives:

Goal 1 – provide statewide/regional trainings in NJ for National School Lunch Program Foodservice personnel on implementing the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, promoting the Healthier US School Challenge and promoting USDA foods (commodities);

  • Objective 1A – Increase the comprehension/knowledge level of NJ foodservice personnel of the nutritional benefits of USDA foods and their contribution to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and how to create those foods into more appealing “kid–friendly” meals.
  • Objective 1B – Increase the availability in NJ schools of both fruits and vegetables within the meals program through the promotion of school gardens and farm-to-school initiatives.

Goal 2 – provide fun and interactive nutrition education and/or physical activity for children, teachers, parents and other caregivers;

  • Objective 2A – Increase nutrition education provided in the classroom, cafeteria and at home through a garden enhanced nutrition-education program, tastings and physical activity.
  • Objective 2B – emphasize school gardens and farm-to-school initiatives to enhance learning from the agricultural environment.

Goal 3 – provide schools with technical assistance to create and maintain a healthier school environment, as well as to implement and enforce their wellness policies that address competitive foods, nutrition education, physical education, and physical activity.

  • Objective 3A – Improve and implement local wellness policies to promote healthier school environments.
  • Objective 3B – reach out to parents, teachers/caregivers, school foodservice staff, and others to provide nutrition education and capitalize on their role-model potential.



The Social Ecological Theory was utilized for the implementation of this two year project. As schools exist within a broader environment, the social ecological model provides a framework to consider how different levels interact and influence nutrition education. the Grow Healthy project aimed to provide interaction on several different levels at each of the nine pilot schools.

This included interaction with:


  • FCHS adapted activities from the Healthy Foods from Healthy Soils curriculum by Elizabeth Patten and Kathy Lyons to create hands-on, interactive lessons that target NJ crops and include updated nutrition messages on MyPlate and apply the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans. A minimum of six lessons were taught at each of the schools.
  • Tastings of a vegetable and/or fruit were implemented after two of the lessons in each school to introduce students to new items and promote an increase in their intake.
  • Interactions in an edible garden were included and were unique to each school.

Foodservice Professionals

  • A FTS survey was administered electronically to NJ school foodservice directors to assess readiness of and/or extent to which farm-to-school (FTS) practices have been implemented in NJ schools.
  • Statewide trainings were held to provide current information on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, new lunch guidelines and several other relevant nutrition-focused issues.

Teachers, Staff & Parents

  • Schools implemented school-wide events to celebrate and promote good nutrition and physical activity.



Evaluation of the project to meet stated objectives was conducted through a variety of pre-and post-evaluations that were unique to each goal of the project. A portion of these results follows.

Goal One

Seven regional trainings for school foodservice personnel were implemented using process, impact and outcome evaluation formats. pre-and post-tests were self-administered immediately following the trainings to assess knowledge gained from each session. Passing grades were obtained by 27.0% (n=137) of the participants on pre-tests and 84.0% (n=125) on post-tests (p<0.001) among 118 matching pre-/post-tests).

An online follow-up survey at 1-yr posttraining sought to assess the implementation of learned strategies by preceding the questions with, “based on what you learned at the training.” the response rate for the 1-yr follow-up was 29% (n=43). Implemented strategies in the respondents’ schools as a result of knowledge and skills gained at the training included increasing whole grain choices, decreasing sodium content, and implementing at least one new way to serve a USDA commodity food.

Responses from the FTS survey (222) are used by partners such as the NJ FTS network and the NJ Department of Agriculture in furthering NJ’s FTS efforts. The complete survey results are available at:

Goal Two

During the 2011-2012 school years, two school-wide tastings were conducted at each of the nine pilot schools. Schools selected a variety of fruits and vegetables for students to taste that complemented the accompanying nutrition lesson and would help nutrition personnel support recommendations from the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act. Tasting cards (one for K-2 and one for 3-6), were developed and used to obtain tasting preference data. Prior to each tasting, students received a tasting card and completed the front (pre-evaluation). After each tasting, they completed the back (post-evaluation). Out of a total of 7,310 eligible students, 6,012 completed the cards (82%). Of the students who completed the tasting cards, 83% were either “willing” or “very willing” to taste the food and 62% were willing to eat the food again.

Of the nine participating schools, five broke ground on a new school garden with this project; four expanded an existing garden. While more training is needed on how to integrate the garden in cross-curricular subject matter, the school garden served as an excellent learning tool about vegetables and fruits, promoting an increase in the students’ consumption of vegetables and fruits.

A web site was established to support families, school teachers/administrators and school foodservice professionals. The site features project information, fact sheets and links on nutrition, local food systems and school gardens.

Goal Three

Forty-three volunteers known as FCHS Wellness Champions were trained to assist with events, tastings, the delivery of the lessons, and in the garden. The Champions were parents, grandparents, and community residents.

School Wellness Councils were started in a majority of the schools with 8 of 9 schools conducting trainings on forming or utilizing effective school wellness councils, including an emphasis on employing strategies to better engage parents and families in the exchange of wellness-related messages and in the promotion of role modeling and volunteerism.


Lessons Learned and Future Directions

During the initial Grow Healthy project, it was discovered that school faculty and staff would benefit from hands-on training on integrating a school garden and nutrition education into cross-curricular subject matter. Training on this topic can increase the use of both and enhance the quality of the program overall. In addition to this, studies show that education acquired in the garden can provide many benefits to students including increasing their overall academic performance. This training of faculty and staff is in the planning stages and is scheduled to be included in the 2012-2014 team nutrition grant project. Schools were also found to be in need of assistance in identifying and completing mini-grant purchases. resources and time are at a premium in a majority of schools, resulting in challenges for some schools to spend the money they had been awarded. Assistance in this task will be provided in the current Grow Healthy project.

In its second round of funding, Grow Healthy is working towards improving and expanding the projects’ reach by inviting several of the original elementary schools back for new lessons, in addition to implementing a competitive process to choose new schools. Preschool-aged children and their caregivers have also been added as additional target populations. Goals continue to include providing statewide trainings for school nutrition personnel and replicating the FTS survey in the fall of 2013 to examine potential progress in FTS implementation in NJ over the past two years.

For more information, please visit

Acknowledgements: Grow Healthy is a collaborative school wellness initiative of Family & Community Health Sciences, Rutgers Cooperative Extension, the NJ Department of Agriculture, USDA/Team Nutrition and NJ schools.