Metro Denver residents participate in garden study

The study looks into the impacts of urban gardening on health and cancer prevention


More than 100 people in the Denver area are participating in a research study about community gardening that’s now in its third year. They’re learning plenty about how to grow a garden — but they also may be planting the seeds for their own good health and a stronger community.

They also get to enjoy the fruits of their labor, growing tomatoes, peppers, squash, green beans and other types of vegetables.

A combined 280 people participated in the first two years and another 106 currently are in the program, a partnership that is backed by the American Cancer Society, which is funding the study, and the University of Colorado Boulder, the University of Colorado Cancer Center, Colorado State University, Denver Urban Gardens, Community Activation for Prevention Study, Michigan State University and University of South Carolina. Similar studies are happening in other states.

“What we’re trying to find is how urban gardening affects community health,” said Natasha Hill, development and communications coordinator at Denver Urban Gardens, a nonprofit which has 180-plus community gardens in cities such as Denver, Arvada, Lakewood and Aurora; 40 of them are participating in this project. The organization also helps with 66 gardens at area schools.

“We genuinely believe that teaching people how to garden and physically grow their own goods will help people be more nutritious and maybe more holistically healthy as a community,” Hill said.

Study results won’t be released until December 2020. But as noted by Angel Villalobos, program manager and a research assistant in CU-Boulder’s Environmental Studies Department, “People are really excited to garden, and we hope to bridge the gap between people that are interested in being part of a community garden or in gardening in general and getting connected with a nearby community garden.”

The study has been open to new gardeners and/or people that haven’t gardened in the past two garden seasons that are ages 18 and up. Participation in the research study is voluntary. The program offers one class as a general orientation before each gardening season, plus Denver Urban Gardens offers free workshops year-round.

To gather information on the health effects of gardening, researchers ask participants to complete a 200-question survey three times a year, delving into their general health, what they eat, what they do to stay physically active, their neighborhoods, their relationships with neighbors and family, and if they feel connected.

Just in case they get too comfortable, participants are asked to wear an activity monitor on one of their legs for seven days – three times a year.

“The idea is to learn what role those factors play in cancer,” Villalobos said. For example, it’s beneficial to eat more fruits and vegetables because of their high fiber content. And the exercise that gardeners get just from nurturing their plots is good for them.

Study participants are compensated $150 per person and given startup kits, plot fees and up to $50 in other garden expenses.

Jill Lipp, an associate professor in CU-Boulder’s environmental studies department, is the principal investigator. Katherine Alaimo, an associate professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, is the co-principal investigator.

Villalobos said in addition to doing health research, the study has been building relationships with its participants. Many stay in touch with him after their volunteer year concludes.

“Seeing the amount of enthusiasm for participants to be part of this kind of research has been really encouraging and unexpected,” he said. “How excited they are when you talk to them about the study has been surprising to me.”


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