Creating a ‘Magic Bean’ Curriculum for Healthy Nutrition


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What so great about beans?

Grad student Kelly Atterberry and mentor Carol Miles have the answer in their new bean-based garden and nutrition curriculum for K-12 students in Washington.

By encouraging kids to learn to garden and try nutritious pulse crops (beans, lentils, peas, etc.), they hope the curriculum can help combat obesity and diet-related health problems among children.

Why Beans?

Kelly Atterberry originally wanted to go nursing school.

Then she learned about agriculture and growing healthy food while working on a farm and again later while working in the Agriculture Research Station at Washington State University (WSU) in Mount Vernon, Wash. (33.7 % Latino).

So she switched her career course. As a grad student at WSU, she studied agriculture, which united her interest of health, science, and farming, and helped her assess the importance of people accessing fresh, healthy produce.

In Washington, Latinos struggle with obesity—57 percent were overweight compared to 26.5 percent of non-Latinos—due to many factors, including a diet lacking in fruits and vegetables and high in fatty snacks.

Many U.S. schools are trying to change the consumption of fruits and vegetables to meet new standards, hoping to connect and give preference to healthier food options for students.

“Kids don’t have a connection to where food comes from,” Atterberry said.

While at the WSU Agriculture Research Station, Atterberry received a unique opportunity from her mentor, Carol Miles, head of horticulture at WSU.

Miles, in 2012, had been approached by the American Pulse Association (APA), part of the US Dry Pea and Lentil Association, with funding to encourage WSU to use pulse crops—a group of different legume crops, like beans, green lentils, and peas—to change the future of Americans’ diets and fight obesity and disease.

Pulse crops have “some of the highest dietary fiber, vegetable protein and potassium nutrition that you can have in your diet,” according to Tim McGreevy of the USA Dry Pea & Lentil Council.

The APA asked Miles to design a student education project that would increase students’ consumption of pulse crops.

“I looked at the idea of doing such a project,” Miles said. “If my program is going to do anything in this area, which is new to me, I would need funding for a master student.”

Miles decided to ask Atterberry to lead the project as her master ‘s degree thesis.

“I love to teach, I love helping people, and I really see a strong connection between what people put in their bodies, and health,” Atterberry said. “I thought about it and then it became a no-brainer.”

They hypothesized that their project, when brought to schools, could have a big impact on students’ health.

“When you gain familiarity with a food, even though you’re not eating it, you’re more likely to eat it, once you know more about it,” Miles said.

Developing an Idea

A bean plant taking root.

Miles ended up getting a grant that included funding from the APA, the WSU Center for Sustaining Agriculture & Natural Resources and the Northwest Agriculture Research Foundation.

Leanne Riddle, from the WSU Food Sense Program, a program that teaches healthy eating behaviors to youth and adults with limited incomes, had already worked in many local schools and had connections speaking to kids about nutrition.

Atterberry knew Riddle through WSU and asked her to give her information on schools and teachers that might have an interest in the project.

“We tried to approach those teachers that we knew we would have a good shot with, who would be receptive. One of the teachers even had a mini-farm at home,” Atterberry stated.

Atterberry asked Susan Kerr, a WSU agriculture professor, and livestock specialist, along with Riddle and Miles to help develop the new curriculum.

They envisioned each participating school to serve more of a variety of vegetables and pulse crops, specifically beans.

Atterberry collected other resources online to develop and fine-tune a curriculum for the project that would incorporate pulse crops, STEM, and school gardens.

Bean Measurements
Kids measuring and counting beans in the school garden. Photo Credit: Kelly Atterberry

“We took what was out there and gave it an STEM-based adjustment,” Atterberry said.

As they fine-tuned the curriculum, they also planned an accompanying a research project to evaluate changes in students’ diets thanks to the curriculum.

They fleshed out some research protocol ideas, including a plate-waste study, which ended up being cut due to inconsistencies in serving sizes and recipes.

“It started out as really an obscure idea, we really fine-tuned it, and it became a large multi-disciplinary project,” Atterberry said.

Growing a Bean Curriculum in Schools

To integrate the bean curriculum into schools, Atterberry looked for three things:

  • Garden space availability;
  • Previous connection with principals and teachers; and
  • Participation in free and reduced lunch programs.

    Kids planting rows of beans in their school garden. Photo credit: Kelly Atterberry

Reconnecting with teachers from her past elementary school–which had a school garden—Atterberry asked if they could start the project at Roosevelt Elementary School in Bellingham, Wash., where 15.% of students are Latino.

After two months of making connections by emailing schools, principles and teachers, Atterberry also had to acquire photo permissions to track and take photos of students in the project, and human research approval documents.

“The groundwork took some time, but we had a lot of excitement though from everyone we talked to. It’s kind of challenging to do research on kids in schools, they’re a lot of people you have to go through, so this all took a lot of time, to educate each person about what you were doing so that we could get consistency and a protocol in place,” Atterberry said.

The curriculum allows teachers to bring students into the garden for half of the classroom time, learning about how to measure, graph, and research the plants, growth and development. Students bring measuring tools, calculators and more, encouraging STEM to play a part of a flexible learning environment.

They pilot-tested the curriculum and research elements in the Roosevelt Elementary School in Bellingham and in the Ferndale School in 2013-14.

Atterberry added a survey to get teachers’ input on the curriculum and add to the research component.

“We would arrange a time to come and plant beans in the school garden. We just wanted to put beans in the ground, that would then allow us to do the curriculum,” Atterberry said. “We just had to take the initiative to get the beans in the ground in the spring.”

In 2015, the researchers stepped out of the picture and five Washington elementary schools incorporated Atterberry’s curriculum, “School Garden-based Pulse Nutrition and Biology Education to Increase Consumption of Dry Beans in K-12 Students,” into their classrooms curriculum.

The curriculum is the only one in the United States focused on pulse crops.

The Anacortes School District, which includes free or reduced-price meals at a 98.9 percentile and has a higher Latino population than many other areas in Washington, also implemented the bean project in all of its fourth-grade classes.

Sustaining the Curriculum

Atterberry said student surveys indicate that not only did the curriculum increase kids’ preferences to eat more pulse crops, but it also increased their overall familiarity with the crops.

If students are introduced in many different ways to a bean, they are more likely to eat more beans, her report showed.

“Since the national school lunch program requires schools to serve ‘x’ number of cups of vegetables per week, our goal was to reduce waste of those foods and increase consumption of those foods, and dry beans are really good for this because they are so high in dietary fiber, and nutrients and so low in fat and high in protein, and it addresses the obesity issues,” she said.

Jody Dylan, a teacher at Mount Erie Elementary School in the Anacortes School District, said she and her students “love the program.” Teachers enjoyed taking students to the garden and applying the curriculum for health nutrition within classes as well, she said.

“It ties right in with the nutrition part and kids loved going out to the garden and seeing how their food was grown,” said Dylan, who noted it spurred students’ interest in other healthy foods, like kale and chives.

Farm to School featured Atterberry’s curriculum on their website, sharing her video of bean recipes, her curriculum, and her nutrition handouts for resources for schools and communities.

The cooking video was given to parents, encouraging them to cook the bean recipes with their kids at home. Atterberry shared recipes like a midnight black bean cake, which was considered an “A-plus” by staff, students and taste-testers in the schools, according to a WSU article.

lesson 3 2013 017
Kids gathering beans in the garden. Photo Credit: Kelly Atterberry.

Equity: Miles said the curriculum adds new healthy food options for kids who might not be able to access affordable, healthy foods in their communities.

“Utilizing dry beans in a school garden-based education program provides a unique opportunity to focus on improving the health of our school children, many of whom are suffering from diet-related conditions such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease,” Miles told WSU. “The challenge is to get kids to eat what’s good for them.”

Sustainability: Anacortes School District plans to keep the curriculum going throughout new school years.

The curriculum is downloadable for any teacher to use, and Atterberry encourages all teachers to “jump” right into the project, which is easy to incorporate across all age groups. Atterberry hopes that the future of the bean project will grow as more teachers utilize the curriculum.

“Learning on how to work with the earth is really important, in terms of sustainability,” Atterberry said.

Currently, Atterberry is training others how to implement her curriculum for use at Northwest Youth Services, a nonprofit known for helping homeless youth in Bellingham.

By continually offering support and resources to teachers, Miles and Atterberry anticipate that these curriculum changes will begin to transform the way children think about their food and the childhood obesity issue in Washington.

“School garden education is a really effective method for teaching students about healthy eating,” Atterberry said.

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Healthy Food

By The Numbers By The Numbers



for every Latino neighborhood, compared to 3 for every non-Latino neighborhood

This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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