Whole Kids Foundation is built on a spirit of collaboration, and we act as a catalyst for change by investing in partnerships with respected experts in the fields of nutrition and education.

Together, we amplify each other’s efforts to improve children's nutrition and wellness.

Throughout 2023, we are spotlighting our current partners and how these organizations are growing the next generation of healthy eaters.

Life Lab cultivates children's love of learning, nourishing food, and nature through garden-based education, and is a national leader in the school garden movement. For over forty years, Life Lab has provided tens of thousands of educators across the country with the inspiration and information necessary to engage young people in educational gardens. Rooted in a commitment to racial equity, Life Lab partners intentionally with communities where systemic racism creates barriers to nature, wellness, and experiential education to promote liberatory garden-based educational opportunities that are accessible to all. Life Lab’s workshops, consultations, and award-winning publications are go-to resources for educators and families interested in engaging young people in gardens.

Since 2016, Whole Kids Foundation has partnered with Life Lab to host the annual School Garden Support Organization (SGSO) Leadership Institute, which provides an opportunity for school garden leaders from across the country to collaborate, learn from one another, and develop resources to share with a national audience. We are thrilled to be able to support the mission and work of Life Lab and look forward to a continued partnership.

We reached out to Whitney Cohen, Education Director at Life Lab, to get the scoop on how they are helping kids learn to love fresh, nutritious, whole foods.

Whole Kids Foundation (WKF): What is Life Lab’s approach to advancing children’s nutrition and wellness?

Life Lab: Within the larger movement to advance children’s nutrition and wellness, Life Lab focuses specifically on cultivating children’s love of nourishing foods. So, how do we inspire a child to fall in love with beets or cauliflower? At Life Lab, we believe it all starts in the garden and kitchen! Our food education lessons are designed to teach students simple, memorable, positive, and actionable concepts surrounding food and wellbeing that support students’ agency and empowerment.

Specifically, Life Lab’s lessons help students discover the following concepts through culturally responsive, hands-on gardening and cooking experiences:

  • Food comes from nature! We are interconnected to the plants and animals that provide us with food.
  • Eating a variety of foods and balancing food groups fuels our bodies and supports us in all-around health.
  • The garden is a source of whole and minimally processed foods that are healthy and taste good.
  • Everyone has their own relationship with food and everyone deserves respect.
  • Our relationship with food can change over time.
  • There is value in experiencing new foods with an open mind. By doing this, we can discover new foods we enjoy and that contribute to our overall health.
  • We can grow our own food!
  • We can cook our own food!
  • We can celebrate community with food!
  • There is value in celebrating all of the people (including us!) invloved in bringing food from farms to our plate.

Guided by these core concepts, Life Lab Instructors lead weekly garden and cooking classes for students in 10 partner schools in Watsonville, California – a community with rich agricultural traditions and also many barriers to food security. In addition, we share curriculum and trainings on garden-enhanced nutrition education with hundreds of educators across the country and around the world each year.

How does Life Lab support garden educators and how does that work impact the larger garden-based learning movement?

Some school gardens thrive for decades, and others bloom and then fade away. What makes the difference? At Life Lab, we believe that people are the heart of school gardens. When schools have inspired, well-informed, and well-supported garden champions at the helm, their garden programs flourish and children’s love of learning, nourishing food, and nature do too. That’s why Life Lab invests in training and supporting educators through our Garden Educator Certification program and virtual and in-person workshops. In addition, we share curriculum with educators, all to provide the inspiration and information they need to successfully bring learning to life in school gardens.

Through our work in this field, we have found that Regional School Garden Support Organizations (SGSOs) are a key determinant in the success and sustainability of school garden programs across the country. Rooted in this understanding, in 2016 Life Lab embarked on a new journey, in partnership with Whole Kids Foundation, to host a School Garden Support Organization Leadership Institute. We now host the Institute annually, and also host a biennial Growing School Gardens Summit. These gatherings provide school garden professionals with opportunities to learn from one another and, in this way, they strengthen the school garden movement at local and national levels so that all children and youth can have vibrant, resilient school garden programs.

What has been the impact of the partnership between Whole Kids Foundation and Life Lab over the years?

We cannot overstate the impact of Whole Kids Foundation’s partnership and support on Life Lab and on the garden-based education movement more broadly. For decades, every school garden professional worked essentially in a silo, with few opportunities to meet one another, let alone collaborate. Whole Kids Foundation inspired Life Lab to dream big about how to best advance the national school garden movement and support school garden professionals. Starting in 2016, the Foundation partnered closely with Life Lab to launch the annual School Garden Support Organization (SGSO) Leadership Institute. In partnership with Whole Kids Foundation, Life Lab has now hosted 6 Leadership Institutes, providing over 200 SGSO leaders with the opportunities to inspire one another, and share promising practices for effectively supporting school garden programs in their regions with one another and with other SGSOs across the country. Due to generous funding from Whole Kids Foundation, participants in the Institute are never turned away for a lack of financial resources. This has allowed us to build a much more inclusive and accessible network than we could have otherwise. The Institute, in turn, has amplified the importance of SGSOs across the country, which has ultimately led to the tremendous growth of the SGSO Network.

What current or upcoming project or program is your team excited about right now?

At Life Lab, we are exploring the impact our programs have on children’s imaginations around who they can be in the world. We are eagerly seeking opportunities to pilot program evaluation models that would allow us to better understand how our school garden programs are impacting children’s sense of themselves in the world, and to answer key questions like: How does time in the garden impact our students’ sense of belonging in the field of science? How does it impact their enthusiasm for school and learning? How does it impact their sense of belonging in nature? How does it impact their relationship to nourishing foods? Do students’ experiences in the garden inspire and empower them to be agents of positive change in their communities? And how does our work contribute to the broader movement for equity in environmental education? We have tremendous anecdotal evidence to suggest that our programs cultivate students’ wellness and grow inspired learners, environmental stewards, and resilient, empowered youth, and we are excited about collaborating with external evaluators to better understand how our work is aligned with our hopes, and where we can grow.