A name like Junior Master Gardeners evokes images of planting seeds with a hope for a bountiful harvest. But the bountiful harvest that Cooperative Extension educators want to achieve isn’t vegetables or fruits. Rather, the Junior Master Gardener® (JMG ®) program works to grow an even more important resource.
“Our mission is to grow good young people,” said Junior Master Gardener national coordinator Lisa Whittlesey. “We want to ignite a passion for learning, for success and for giving back to the community. We hope they learn about horticulture, but our goal is to foster positive youth development.”
USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) provides support to the Junior Master Gardener program through capacity funding to Land-grant Institutions. JMG, which began in Texas, can be found in all 50 states with an estimated annual reach of more than 1 million young people from pre-school to junior high school. Additionally, JMG programs are offered through 1862 and 1890 Land-grant Institutions as well as Minority-serving Institutions, enhancing the program’s ability to reach a diverse population of young people.
NIFA Youth and 4-H Division Director Shannon Horrillo said the program promotes personal growth and enables young people to grow as leaders and agents for change.
“The Junior Master Gardener Program provides a unique opportunity for young people to develop positive youth development outcomes while nurturing their interests and passion for gardening, nutrition, and health,” said Horrillo.
In the late 1990s, Whittlesey led a Texas AgriLife Extension program for women inmates at a federal prison. She expanded that program’s activities so inmates could have productive and meaningful time when their children visited.
“I saw the impact that prison program had on adults and their children as they learned where their food came from, and I believed strongly that we needed a program that could reach all children,” said Whittlesey. She wrote the first grant proposal for JMG in 1999 and has never looked back.
While the first curriculum created focused on elementary grades, the program now has curricula designed for preschool-aged children up to middle school and junior high school. Whittlesey said the curricula allow schoolteachers, 4-H agents and other leaders the flexibility to tailor content to their groups’ needs.
Most JMG groups take place in schools and are taught by teachers as a part of their classroom instruction. Junior Master Gardener groups can also be found in informal settings such as 4-H clubs, afterschool programs and summer camps.
Participants can earn Certified Junior Master Gardener status by belonging to a registered JMG group and completing a set of requirements. A community service project is one mandated element to receive a JMG certificate.
“JMG service projects help young people understand that they can have a positive influence on their communities,” said Whittlesey. “It’s important young people understand and believe they can be instruments of change.”
One of the newest JMG curricula includes a focus on healthy eating and nutrition. JMG’s Learn, Grow, Eat & Grow is an interdisciplinary program that combines academic achievement, gardening, nutrient-dense food experiences, physical activity and school and family engagement.
Research shows that this program is making a difference in participants’ health. Here are just a few findings.
- Student vegetable consumption at school increased.
- Student engagement in moderate physical activity increased.
- Student sugar-sweetened beverage consumption decreased.
- Parents and students preparing meals together increased.
- Parents and students eating meals together increased.