Feature Stories

Securing a Healthy Future for Israel’s Children

JDC's 36 preschool gardens in Israel teach children and youth practical skills and encourage them to eat more fruits and vegetables.
JDC's 36 preschool gardens in Israel teach children and youth practical skills and encourage them to eat more fruits and vegetables.

For “Daniel” — a 4-year-old in a central Israeli town — a solution to his shyness and marked language delays came from an unlikely source: the cucumbers and tomatoes he helped to grow at his preschool’s JDC-operated community garden.

The edible garden started in Daniel’s preschool is one of 36 preschool gardens established about a year ago by JDC’s Nutrition Enrichment and Healthy Living Program, in conjunction with Israel’s Ministry of Health.

With Tu B’Shvat, the Jewish holiday celebrating trees and nature, occurring next week, many of the community gardens have found creative ways to celebrate. At Daniel’s preschool, students will mark the holiday by eating dried fruits, as well as the vegetables they helped plant.

Prior to the introduction of the community garden, Daniel and many of his preschool classmates frequently skipped the vegetables offered at mealtime, preferring instead to fill up on starchy foods.

Since a lack of the nutrients found in fresh produce has been shown to negatively affect children’s development and overall health, JDC pioneered community gardening initiatives that would allow youngsters to take an active part in growing the foods that appear on their plates.

As the vegetables in Daniel’s garden ripened, the students helped pick, wash, and cut them. Tasting the fresh produce became an exciting event, and teachers at the preschool say their charges are now hooked on cucumbers and tomatoes. They’ve even learned how to make their own pickles at home with their families.

For Daniel the change was even more profound. Before the garden, he would interact minimally with staff and other students, and administrators at the preschool worried he would have to transfer to a facility for students with special needs.

But Daniel quickly became attached to the garden project. As soon as he arrived in the morning, he’d check on the plants and share his excitement with his teachers.

Soon he was talking about the project at home, too.

“I was so amazed the first time Daniel came over to me and began to talk about the new sprouts in the garden. He had been so uncommunicative earlier in the year, we were sure he would need to transfer to an intensive special needs preschool next year,” his teacher “Shira” said. “But clearly the connection to the seeds and the garden activities touched him in some way. This was beyond our expectations.”

His parents have now planted a small garden plot at home so Daniel can continue to grow and learn.

Daniel and his preschool underscore the key goals of JDC’s 200 garden initiatives throughout Israel, from Kiryat Shmona in the north to Yerucham in the south.

JDC’s gardens bring together members of the community in a fun way that benefits everyone,” said Yair Kamaisky, who coordinates JDC's various garden initiatives.

“Those gardens with an educational focus serve to encourage children and youth to eat more fruits and vegetables and learn practical skills, giving them a valuable hobby for their free time.”

JDC’s non-preschool gardens — for the community, for children and youth at-risk, for the elderly, and for people with disabilities  — operate in partnership with a variety of Israeli government ministries: Health, Environment, Social Affairs and Social Services, Housing, and Agriculture, and with support from private funders. The preschool gardens are generously supported by Prof. Stanley Mills z”l, Barbara Kay and family, the S & P Philanthropic Fund, and the Ministry of Health. JDC’s other garden programs are generously supported by the Asper Foundation.

Tags for this story: Jewish Holiday Celebrations, Children, Health / Medical Issues

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