Results from a Survey on School Food Gardens in South Africa:
Perceptions of Teachers, Learners and Parents
S.M. Laurie1, M. Faber2, M.E. Malebana1 and E. van den Heever1
1 Agricultural Research Council (ARC) – Roodeplaat, Vegetable and Ornamental Plant
Institute, Pretoria, South Africa
2 Nutritional Intervention Research Unit, Medical Research Council, Cape Town, South
Keywords: cross-sectional survey, curriculum, national study, school nutrition
School food gardens can play an important role in teaching learners about
gardening concepts and skills with the aim of increasing home production for
household food and nutrition security. A cross-sectional survey (funded by the FAO)
was conducted in ten schools in each of the nine provinces of South Africa to assess
the perceptions on food production by learners, teachers and parents. Structured
questionnaires were completed, for each school, of all grade 0 to 7 teachers, the
school garden administrator, the volunteer food handler, 30 randomly selected
grade 5 to 7 learners and 10 parents. Of the 2546 learners that completed the
questionnaire, 77% indicated that their school had a food garden, while 68%
indicated that their families grew vegetables/fruit at home. Learners predominantly
perceived garden work to be fun (57%). Just over 50% of learners were involved in
school garden activities, and of these, 56% talked at home of what they had learned
at the school food garden. According to the garden administrators (n=55) garden
produce was mostly taken home by learners (85%). Of the teachers (n=683), 96%
perceived school food gardens as a means to improve children’s health. Two thirds
of schools integrated gardening into the curriculum, predominantly in life
orientation (82%), but also in natural sciences (46%) and reading (35%). In
addition, just over 40% of parents (n=704) detected behavioural change in their
children (e.g., taking part in home gardens and passion for gardening) since
involvement in school food gardens, with 42% indicating that learners talked about
the school garden activities at home. It was concluded that learners and teachers
were positive about school food gardening, and that information flow on school
garden activities occurred from learners to parents. More efforts should be made to
strengthen school-based food gardens and their integration into the curriculum.
School food gardens can play an important role in teaching learners gardening
concepts and skills, with the aim to increase home food production to ensure household
food and nutrition security. Garden-enhanced nutrition education in schools was shown to
positively affect children’s attitude, nutrition knowledge, food preference and
consumption patterns in terms of vegetables and fruit (Somerset and Markwell, 2009;
Parmer et al., 2009). Blair (2009) reviewed the literature and reported that quantitative
studies showed positive outcomes of school food-gardening initiatives in the areas of
scientific achievement and food behaviour.
In South Africa, the Department of Basic Education (DBE) is responsible for the
National School Nutrition Program (NSNP). The NSNP has three sub-programmes,
namely (Department of Education, 2008a):
(i) Feeding programme, which aims to reduce short term hunger by providing nutritious
meals to learners on all school days, thus enhance the child’s learning capacity;
(ii) Sustainable Food Production in Schools (SFPS), which promotes the implementation
of sustainable food production initiatives in order to provide knowledge and transfer
skills to schools and communities, thus improve household food security; and
(iii) Nutrition Education (NE), which strengthens nutrition education, to improve
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nutritional knowledge as well as healthy eating and lifestyles among school
The main drives for this focus are concerns in public health and food insecurity
which include the following national statistics: 1) only 20% of South African households
appeared food secure, 2) 64% of 1- to 9-year-old children suffered from vitamin A
deficiency, and 3) 9% of children 1 to 9 years old were underweight and 4.5% wasted
(indicating acute malnutrition); while 18% were stunted due to chronic malnutrition
(Labadarios et al., 2000; Gericke and Labadarios, 2007; Kruger et al., 2007; Labadarios et
The key objective of the SFPS sub-programme of the NSNP is to promote and
support food production initiatives in schools. By 2007/8 a total of 6503 schools
nationally had school food gardens, which is a steady increase from the 3058 gardens in
2004/5 (Department of Education, 2008b).
As part of a Technical Cooperation Program between the Food and Agriculture
Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and DBE, the FAO funded the Agricultural
Research Council (ARC) to conduct a situation analysis in 90 schools that participated in
the NSNP. The ARC invited the Medical Research Council (MRC) to assist with
nutritional aspects of the study. The overall aim of the assessment was to collect
information on school feeding, school food vending, food gardens and nutrition education
activities, as well as the knowledge, perceptions and practices regarding relevant
agricultural and nutritional issues for educators, learners and parents. The study will
support the DBE with the NSNP.
Due to the magnitude of the survey and its results, this paper will only deal with
results on assessing the perceptions of learners, teachers and parents on food production
MATERIALS AND METHODS
A cross-sectional survey was conducted in ten schools in each of the nine
provinces of South Africa as selected by the DBE. The selection was purposive to mostly
include schools with food gardens representing rural, urban and peri-urban areas as well
as dry, high rainfall and coastal zones.
The aim was to complete, for each school, self-administered structured
questionnaires for all grade R to grade 7 teachers, the teacher responsible for the
administration of the food garden (garden administrator), and 30 randomly selected grade
5 to grade 7 learners. The latter completed the questionnaires under supervision of the
field workers. The aim further was to complete an interview-administered structured
questionnaire for one food handler and a convenience sample of 10 parents per school.
All questionnaires were tested for face validity and piloted beforehand. The teachers
completed the questionnaires in English. The questionnaires for the parents, learners and
food handlers were translated into six local languages. The translations were verified
through back translation by independent persons familiar with the local vernacular and
who were not involved in the original compilation or translation of the questionnaire.
Corrections were made where necessary. The translated questionnaires were piloted and
revised where needed.
Ethical clearance for the study was obtained from the Ethics Committee of the
MRC (EC09-015). The DBE obtained permission to do the study from the relevant senior
managers in the provincial Departments of Education and school headmasters. Written
informed consent was obtained from adult respondents before completion of the
questionnaire. Written informed consent was obtained from the parents of the selected
learners, and the learners gave written assent.
Data collection was done by trained fieldworkers from DBE from March to
October 2010. Data capturing and cleaning was done at the ARC and MRC, and
frequency analyses were performed using the statistical package SAS.
RESULTS AND DISCUSSION
Perceptions of Learners
During the survey, 2546 learners completed the learner questionnaire. Of these,
77% indicated that their school had a food garden. It is encouraging that 68% of the
learners indicated that their families grew vegetables and/or fruit at home. Most of the
learners had a positive attitude towards working in a food garden (Table 1). Learners
perceived garden work to be fun (57%) and their duty (22%). Only 6% of the learners
regarded garden work as punishment. Just over half (54%) of the learners at schools with
food gardens were involved in school gardens, and of those, 56% talked at home of what
they had learned at the school food garden. Learners indicated that the main purpose of
school food gardens was to learn about healthy eating (36%) and to produce food (32%)
Food Garden Administrators
According to the teachers responsible for food garden administration (n=55)
garden produce are primarily given to learners to take home (Table 2).
Volunteer Food Handlers
The food handlers (persons responsible for preparing the school meal; n=84) were
asked for what purpose a school food garden could be used. Answers given by at least 5%
of the respondents were: produce to be used in the school meal (27%); to produce
vegetables (18%); to provide fresh vegetables (12%); for the health of the children (7%);
to teach learners about gardening (6%); and to save money (6%).
When asked which foods they thought could be grown in the school garden that
could be used in the school meal, 10% did not answer the question, 6% gave an irrelevant
answer, and 11% gave a more general answer (vegetables and/or fruit). Specific foods
listed mostly were carrot (58%), cabbage (50%), spinach (37%), onions (30%), potato
(26%), tomato (25%), pumpkin (19%), beans (17%), and beetroot (15%). Planting a
variety of micronutrient rich crops to be used in the school meal can potentially help to
add variety to the school meal, and increase the micronutrient content of the meal.
Perceptions of Teachers
Of the teachers (n=683), 96% perceived school food gardens as a means to
improve learners’ health, for reasons presented in Table 3. Two thirds (68%) of the
teachers integrated gardening into the curriculum, predominantly into life orientation
(82%), but also into natural sciences (46%), reading (35%), mathematics (30%),
economic and business science (26%), technology (25%), arts and culture (19%), and
social science (17%). Graham and Zidenberg-Cherr (2005) reported that teachers
identified a strong need for multiple resources to enable them to effectively teach
nutrition through school gardens. These included e.g., curriculum materials link to
academic standards, teacher training in gardening, and lessons for teaching nutrition in
Most teachers felt that it was good for learners to be exposed to garden work
(77%), it being a valuable teaching tool (83%), and children could learn as much from it
as from classwork (63%) (Fig. 1). Only 11% of the teachers perceived gardening as a
Perceptions of Parents
The questionnaire was completed by 704 parents. There was some level of
information flow from the learners to the parents; 40% of the parents reported that their
child has shown or taught them something that he/she has learned through the school food
garden. Children mostly showed their parents how to grow/plant vegetables (48%), or
more specific information such as how to water/irrigate the plants (14%) and planting
methods (10%). Another value of the school food garden was that the children brought
home vegetables, showing parents the vegetables and letting them cook it at home (14%).
The transfer of the awareness and knowledge of vegetable production and consumption to
the household level is a key finding, as vegetable and fruit consumption in South Africa is
generally low (Vorster et al., 1997). Affordability and availability are the main reasons
for the low intake of vegetables and fruit. Poverty was perceived by the teachers as one of
the problems affecting nutrition of the learners in their school, and most households will
therefore not be able to purchase vegetables and particularly fruit regularly. Through the
NSNP, households can be encouraged to plant a variety of vegetables and fruit for home
According to 42% of parents, the school food gardens had an influence on their
children’s behaviour. Children primarily started to take part in the garden (47%), but also
showed love for gardening, showed more passion about it and were more responsible
about gardening (24%) (Table 4). In addition, 88% of parents thought that food gardens at
school made a difference to children’s health. E.g., children stayed healthy, it helped them
grow and not to get sick easily (16%).
Most of the parents agreed that children can learn a lot about healthy eating
through gardening (90%), and can learn as much from garden activities as from
participation in class work (85%). However, some parents had a negative perception of
gardening activities (Fig. 2). Gardening was perceived as a low-status activity by 29% of
the parents, 21% perceived gardening as boring, 29% thought that children should work
in the food garden as punishment, and 33% of the parents indicated that primary school
children should not be working in the school garden. When children are expected to take
part in gardening activities at school, it should be taken into account that a third of the
parents were negative about children working in the gardens. Awareness campaigns are
needed to change these perceptions of parents.
Both learners and teachers perceived food gardening positively, creating a
conducive environment for gardening activities and garden-enhanced nutrition education
in schools. Regarding parents, efforts should focus on awareness creation of the
importance to learners of involvement in garden activities, and to change the perceptions
of parents on gardening.
Strengthening of gardening activities and integration thereof into the curriculum
and other school activities is needed to encourage planting of vegetables and/or fruit for
home consumption. To ensure that schools have the capacity to do this, education
material needs to be developed and teachers need to be trained in gardening.
A systematic approach is needed for institutionalizing and sustaining school food
gardens (Castle and Bialobrzeska, 2009). For the school food gardens to thrive and
sustain a high level of productivity, it is critical that training, gardening equipment and
technical advice and support be provided, either by the Department of Agriculture,
Forestry and Fisheries or other service providers such as, for example, non-governmental
We gratefully acknowledge the collaboration of Department of Basic Education,
funding received from the FAO and the cooperation of respondents taking part in the
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Table 1. Learners’ (n=2441) perceptions on food gardening.
Garden work is: % Main purpose of school food garden %
Fun 57 Learning about healthy eating 36
My duty 22 To produce food 33
An achievement 15 Learning how to grow vegetables 23
A punishment 6 School income 9
Table 2. Use of produce from the school food garden, according garden administrators
Children take it home 85
Sold on regular basis 29
Used in the school meals 26
Sold at special events 18
Food production in general (use not specified) 15
Other, e.g., when teaching 8
Table 3. Teachers’ opinions on differences the school food garden can make to learners’
health (those who perceived gardens as a means to improve children’s health; n=636).
Produce from the garden adds variety and nutrition to the school meal 20
Provide a balanced diet to needy children 19
Food gardens can be used to teach learners about healthy eating 19
Educate learners to plant; learn garden skills; teach love for gardening;
teach importance of food gardens 12
Good for their bodies, more active, better minds 12
Fresh vegetables for learners 9
Can be used in NSNP; feed learners 5
Enhance frequent consumption 2
More cost effective than to buy; good value 2
Table 4. Difference in learner’s behaviour since becoming involved in school food
garden, for those who perceived school gardens as influencing children’s behavior
Take part/help in the garden 47
Love gardening, passionate or more responsible about it 24
Gained knowledge 11
Started his/her own garden 7
Buy more fruit/eat more vegetables than snacks 5
Show interest in the garden 2
Talks about gardening 2
Increase in production 1
Fig. 1. Teacher’s (n=683) perceptions on school food gardening (%).
Fig. 2. Parents’ (n=704) perceptions on school food gardening (%).