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A vegetable garden in the summer time.

AUBURN UNIVERSITY, Ala. – There are nearly 14.5 million people living with and beyond cancer in the United States today. Through the Master Gardener program, Alabama Extension’s home grounds team is working to make an impact on the lives of people affected by cancer with the Harvest for Health program.

The home grounds team and their Master Gardener volunteers have successfully supported cancer research since 2010; the latest study still ongoing through 2021. These studies aim to document the health benefits of gardening for cancer survivors.

Harvest for Health

Harvest for Health is a program where cancer survivors pair with a Master Gardener mentor. Each participate and mentor are together for 12 months of hands-on learning in a home vegetable garden. According to Kerry Smith, state Master Gardener program coordinator, 410 cancer survivors and 492 Master Gardener mentors in 32 counties have participated.

“Learning to grow food, being outside daily and working in the garden, affects the survivor’s diet and overall health,” Smith said. “Master Gardeners knew this would be a great outreach opportunity, and have brought a high level of enthusiasm to the project.”

The Impact

Illustrating what one participant thought about the experience, she wrote a letter to her Master Gardener mentor.

“I have enjoyed the Harvest for Health program so much. Gardening has become one of my favorite things to do. You have taught me so much about gardening and provided some great (Extension) literature that I continue to use today. I think the best thing you have taught me is to ‘have fun with your garden’. The program has been awesome for me.”

She also added that she and her husband are now lifetime gardeners. They have added three new garden beds to the one provided by the project.

A mentor in the study summed up her experience this way; “What can seem so simple in sun, soil, water, and a seed can be a miraculous life-changing point.”

Participate In the Current Project

The current, and much larger project, will mentor 426 Alabama cancer survivors between 2017 and 2021. No gardening experience is necessary to participate. Interested cancer survivors should contact the UAB office; information at https://www.uab.edu/shp/h4h/.

“This first of its kind research is proving what gardeners have known for a long time; gardening is good for you.”Smith said. “UAB’s medical researchers are helping us make historic contributions to horticulture.”

Healthy Partnerships

Harvest for Health is a partnership between Alabama Extension’s home grounds team and the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Comprehensive Cancer Center. Funding for this research has come from the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham, Diana Dyer Endowment of the American Institute for Cancer Research and the National Cancer Institute. Additional support came from many private donations and two commercial sponsors.

“The feedback has been overwhelming. I’m proud of our volunteer’s support,” said Tony Glover, Cullman County Extension coordinator. Glover worked with UAB researchers in the first pilot study in 2010 and mentioned to Smith that this important project was a perfect fit for the Master Gardeners.

Other Pilot Studies

Two additional pilot studies were conducted with 82 Breast Cancer Survivors in the Jefferson metro counties and 46 adult cancer survivors in central and south Alabama. These provided a basis for further study. Participants increased their vegetable intake, improved their strength and flexibility and had dramatically higher telomerase levels, which is considered a predictor of healthy aging. One year after their participation, 85 percent of the survivors were still gardening and several had expanded his or her garden beyond the kit provided. When asked if they would join this study again, 96 percent of the participants said yes.

Learn more about the Harvest for Health program by watching this program from Alabama Public Television.

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