Faces of Public Health: Kelly Meyer and Garden Lessons from "The Lorax"

Mar 1, 2012, 6:32 PM, Posted by

Will The Lorax, a film version of the Dr. Seuss book, which opens tomorrow, prompt kids everywhere to plant gardens and eat healthier? That’s the hope of Kelly Meyer, the founder of American Heart Association Teaching Gardens, a project that teaches kids how to plant seeds, care for their plants and harvest the produce. The Lorax tells the story of a boy in search of his young love’s “heart’s desire,” a truffala tree, only to find that all the trees have been chopped down to create a new invention. A theme of environmental preservation and connection with nature runs throughout the story, and ends with a single seed meant to rebuild the forest.

NewPublicHealth spoke with Meyer, who brought a group of young gardeners to the film’s premiere in Los Angeles last week to showcase a special Teaching Garden that will be donated to local schools.

NewPublicHealth: How did the Teaching Gardens program come about?

Kelly Meyer: For me, it was a wonderful opportunity to address a health issue, childhood obesity, while connecting kids to nature and teaching them about a food source in a real, three-dimensional way. And so, I started the program with just one garden, and had the good fortune to have the program adopted by the American Heart Association. Now we’re in over 100 schools across the country and I have a real infrastructure to help push this program forward.

>>Read more on childhood obesity from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

NPH: What have you seen the kids get out of the experience?

Kelly Meyer: They learn what it takes to grow food that’s healthy for you and they learn teamwork. They have a much more real-life picture of science. We had one child in the program who was tasting a clementine from a tree she helped plant. She had never tasted one before, and when you see the expression on her face—she was prepared for it to be sour and awful, and instead it was sweet and juicy and beautiful. When we harvest the garden and prepare salads, I think the kids are shocked at how good it tastes.

>>Watch a video on the Teaching Gardens program, including footage of the young girl trying a Clementine for the very first time.

And the kids take [the message] home to their parents. I’ve gotten so many photos from kids who’ve gone home and made a little bit of space in the back and planted a tiny garden of their own. They take ownership.

NPH: How did the association with the film come about?

Kelly Meyer: I have a relationship with Universal Pictures and with the producer of the film and they gave us this opportunity to set up a beautiful garden at the premiere, and the kids got to plant and then they went to the movie and they learned it’s ultimately just about that one seed, whether it’s the literal seed for growing the last tree or the seed of an idea and its growth and how important it is to protect that.

When the movie was over, the kids ran and they couldn’t get back to the garden fast enough, and they wanted to plant more. And then, when we left the garden, we sent them all home with seedlings and I got many emails that kids had planted gardens with their parents and now they’re going to be growing vegetables together in their back yard. That was really exciting.

NPH: What’s next for you?

Kelly Meyer: I’m going to continue to focus on the Teaching Gardens because I want it to be successful. It’s not automatic. You don’t just ship it off and it’s done, it requires a lot of attention. I’d also like to broaden the concept that maintaining your environment and the environment of your body is directly related and connected to our general health.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.