Zoe Madden '12 gets kids excited about veggies

Zoe Madden '12 (in white), director of coordinated school health for Norwich Public Schools, works with children in the new garden at their school.
Zoe Madden '12 (in white), director of coordinated school health for Norwich Public Schools, works with children in the new garden at their school.

A year after heading up Sprout!, the college’s student-run organic garden, Zoe Madden ’12 is fighting childhood obesity by, among other means, introducing kids to the joys of eating the vegetables they grow themselves.  

As director of coordinated school health for the Norwich Public School district, about 10 miles north of the College, Madden has developed several health-education programs for children in the district’s 10 elementary and middle schools. This spring, she led the creation of a 4,000-square-foot garden, roughly the size of a basketball court, at one of the middle schools.

In the Bridges Extended Learning program, Madden teaches gardening to elementary-schoolers. She knew it was hard to get kids to eat vegetables. But that has not been the case with the snap peas, radishes, tomatoes, kale, lettuce and edible nasturtium flowers the children have been growing under her watch, she says.

“One of my favorite experiences on the job so far was introducing a group of students to kale. They loved it. Whenever I take them out to the garden, they enjoy picking leaves off the plant and eating them raw,” she says. “There is something about planting a seed, nurturing it, and seeing it grow that really inspires my students to want to try new foods and enjoy the harvest.”

In another program, Madden teaches middle school students about exercise, healthy eating and how to calculate their body mass index, a ratio of weight to height that is used in gauging if someone is overweight. Children also learn how to monitor their weight and blood pressure, allowing them to see their progress.

Madden was hired in response to an epidemic of childhood obesity in Norwich. A study by nurses at the school-based health centers found that nearly 40 percent of students were overweight and about 20 percent obese, she says. Madden, who joined the school system in January, says one group of 16 elementary students who participated in an after-school fitness class lost an average of half a pound each over four weeks.

“This is a significant weight loss for this age, as it is often a goal for overweight children (just) to maintain their current weight so that they can ‘grow into it,’” she says.

A botany and environmental studies major, Madden spent several summers on campus doing research with Associate Professor of Botany Rachel Spicer and Peter Siver, the Becker Professor of Botany.

As president of the Sprout! Garden club, she was one of a group of students who helped secure administration and grant funding to expand and relocate the garden from its original location – at the north end of campus near the student residence 360 House – to a more prominent location behind the College Center at Crozier-Williams. The expanded garden has raised beds, more planting area, and a hoop house to extend the growing season. And it’s now featured on the campus tour for prospective students.

In Norwich, Madden’s fundraising experience has come in handy. At one point, her position was in danger of being eliminated because of a lack of funds. She successfully applied for grants to support it for another two years.

-- By Devon Gay

July 31, 2013