CU Study Measures Community Gardening Health Benefits
By Jodi Torpey
In spite of aching backs, sore knees, and sunburned necks, gardening is good for you. That’s what gardeners think and that’s what a new community gardening research study is out to prove.
The Community Activation for Prevention Study—CAPS—is taking a scientific approach to addressing an important question: Can community gardening help prevent cancer?
Armed with a $950,000 grant from the American Cancer Society, a team of researchers is partnering with Denver Urban Gardens (DUG) to conduct a three-year, randomized controlled study of 312 new gardeners. Some of those gardeners will plant in a DUG community garden, while others remain on a garden waiting list.
By comparing health measurements of the groups over time, researchers will determine if community gardening promotes healthy behaviors that prevent cancer and how that happens. Is it because of improved diet, more exercise, maintaining a healthy weight? If so, what are the factors that influence those changes?
“This is a study about prevention,” said Dr. Jill Litt, associate professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado-Boulder and principal investigator for the CAPS trial. “Improved diet and activity are two of the most important things you can do to prevent cancer.”
Another key aspect of the study is the social connection that comes with being part of a group of gardeners. “The other piece that’s very important for cancer prevention is reducing social isolation. The community garden context allows us to look at that.”
Litt’s interest in working with community gardeners started in 2004 when she partnered with DUG through the “Gardens Growing Healthy Communities” research project. Some of the key findings from that observational study show more than half of community gardeners eat more fruits and vegetables than non-gardeners, they’re more active, more socially engaged, and have stronger ties to their neighborhoods.
The research provided valuable information; however, because participants were already gardening, it was difficult to determine if they came to the study with healthy habits or if gardening changed them.
“This trial allows us to better assess causality because we’re taking new gardeners and we’re randomizing them to garden or not, and we’re following them over a year. We do that three times with three different waves,” Litt explained.
The study began in January 2017 and there have been two participant assessments so far. The assessments are visits with researchers to measure diet, body mass index, sedentary time, and physical activity over a week measured by wearing an accelerometer.
While the study’s final results won’t be available for several years, there have already been some positive outcomes in the gardens, according to Angel Villalobos, a CU research assistant and the CAPS program coordinator based at DUG.
“At the beginning, participants were nervous because they were afraid to do something wrong and their plants were going to die,” he said. “But after a couple of months you could see their confidence had increased. It was outstanding for me to see how happy they were in their gardens.”
Even though Villalobos has been around gardening all his life by way of his grandmother, last summer was the first time he planted his own vegetable garden. He filled his Lowry community garden plot with tomatoes, peppers, corn, chard, cilantro and more.
“It was eye-opening,” he said. “After having my own garden, I’m able to see why we ask certain questions of the participants.”
He was especially touched when one of the community gardeners shared sunflower seeds with him from her beautiful garden.
“At first I didn’t quite get it, but now being a part of it makes so much sense,” he added. In addition to being connected to the other gardeners, he enjoyed the physical activity and how working in the garden helped relieve anxiety and stress.
Some of that stress comes from making sure the trial is running as smoothly as possible. He gathers ideas from the grant partners and puts them into practice, works closely with the researchers, balances ideas from the advisory team, ensures protocols are followed, manages a team of five study assistants, confirms data is entered correctly, and recruits new gardeners.
On the garden side of the trial is Lara Fahnestock, DUG director of garden support and a member of the CAPS advisory team. There are almost 170 community gardens in the DUG network, and she’s the main support for the volunteer garden leaders.
DUG, now in year 33, is the logical setting for the trial because of its strong network of community gardens and because of its long partnership with Dr. Litt and the Colorado School of Public Health.
As the liaison between the CAPS research team and the community gardens, Fahnestock works with the garden leaders to identify which gardens would fit the study. “We look at neighborhoods where food access is an important topic of discussion and neighborhoods where the gardens play an essential role in the community,” she said.
“It’s not just by providing a space for people to grow their own food, but providing a space for communities to gather, for neighbors to gather, and for extended families to grow together.”
The garden leaders appreciate that their gardens are being recognized through the CAPS research. “They’re excited there will be scientific data to back up what we intrinsically know about how gardening makes us feel better,” Fahnestock said.
“As a nonprofit, DUG relies on grants and funds from outside sources, and anything we can point to that shows the benefits of community gardening is wonderful for our organization,” she said. “It might mean more money to keep our projects sustainable and sustainability is key.”
Denver gardeners can find information about participating in the CAPS research study on the CapsMetro.org website or contact Angel Villalobos at 303-724-1235 (email Angel@dug.org).
Jodi Torpey is an award-winning vegetable gardener who lives in Denver and the author of Blue Ribbon Vegetable Gardening.