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Maintaining community garden plot may help maintain healthier weight, says Utah study

A Place Called Home's community garden in South Los Angeles. A new study says maintaining a community garden plot may also mean maintaining a healthier weight.
A Place Called Home's community garden in South Los Angeles. A new study says maintaining a community garden plot may also mean maintaining a healthier weight.
José Martinez/KPCC

People who participate in community gardening appear to weigh less than their counterparts who don't, suggests new research coming out of the Salt Lake Valley.

Cathleen Zick, a professor of family and consumer studies at the University of Utah, led the study and said at last estimate, there were more than 18,000 community gardens in the United States.

"That's just a drop in the bucket of where we could be if we were to work creatively with communities to make use of some of this land," she said. "In the United States, we just haven't done that, and the community gardening movement is one potential avenue for increasing public health that we really need to be capitalizing on."

Zick's research looked at the body mass index (BMI) of nearly 200 residents of a community in Salt Lake City and compared them to three other groups: neighbors, siblings and spouses. According to the study:

Both women and men community gardeners had significantly lower BMIs than did their neighbors who were not in the community gardening program. ... We also observed significantly lower BMIs for women community gardeners compared with their sisters ... and men community gardeners compared with their brothers … Community gardeners also had lower odds of being overweight or obese than did their otherwise similar neighbors.

Comparing the study participants to neighbors and siblings helped ascertain whether differences in weight could be attributed to socioeconomic status, qualities of the neighborhood or genetic predispositions – which they couldn't. But it was different when it came to married couples:

As expected, we observed no difference between community gardeners and spouses of community gardeners, suggesting that those who live in the same household as a gardener also benefit from the produce and the physical demands of gardening.

That indicates that the benefits of gardening can go beyond the gardener, said Zick. She added that her study, which focused on a single area in Utah, couldn't necessarily be generalized to shed light on South Los Angeles. But there are some takeaways.

"It's clear that something in that larger domain of nutrition and physical activity is going on that provides those gardeners with protective effects," Zick said, adding that gardeners "have the potential for better health outcomes because of lower weight." That could have to do with the fact that gardeners tend to eat the fruits and vegetables they grow, or it could have to do with the physical activity required by gardening.

UMMA Community Clinic recently celebrated the grand opening of Fremont Wellness Center and Community Garden, a school-based clinic at South L.A.'s beleaguered Fremont High School. Dr. Felix Aguilar, UMMA's president and CEO, said in an interview that pairing a clinic with a garden represented an "integration of different services, of different elements, into one place."

"We recognize that people are not parts of themselves," he said at the time. "We're trying to integrate both the healthy eating with access to primary care; we're also integrating it with education because it's inside a high school."

Obesity rates in South Los Angeles are among the highest in the county; nearly 1 in 3 adults are obese, according to the latest figures.

Zick said several of the gardens involved in her study were in low-income areas, and said gardens could be a "fairly low-cost way to make use of land that may even be sitting idle."

Her study appeared in the American Journal of Public Health.