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Am J Public Health. 2011 August; 101(8): 1466–1473.
PMCID: PMC3134498

The Influence of Social Involvement, Neighborhood Aesthetics, and Community Garden Participation on Fruit and Vegetable Consumption

Abstract

Objectives. We considered the relationship between an urban adult population's fruit and vegetable consumption and several selected social and psychological processes, beneficial aesthetic experiences, and garden participation.

Methods. We conducted a population-based survey representing 436 residents across 58 block groups in Denver, Colorado, from 2006 to 2007. We used multilevel statistical models to evaluate the survey data.

Results. Neighborhood aesthetics, social involvement, and community garden participation were significantly associated with fruit and vegetable intake. Community gardeners consumed fruits and vegetables 5.7 times per day, compared with home gardeners (4.6 times per day) and nongardeners (3.9 times per day). Moreover, 56% of community gardeners met national recommendations to consume fruits and vegetables at least 5 times per day, compared with 37% of home gardeners and 25% of nongardeners.

Conclusions. Our study results shed light on neighborhood processes that affect food-related behaviors and provides insights about the potential of community gardens to affect these behaviors. The qualities intrinsic to community gardens make them a unique intervention that can narrow the divide between people and the places where food is grown and increase local opportunities to eat better.

Fruit and vegetable consumption is an essential component of a healthy diet and one of the most modifiable risk factors for chronic disease, but only a small percentage of the world's population consumes the recommended amount.17 Reasons for shifting dietary patterns and concomitant health risks are complex, involving an array of factors that span individual lifestyle, cultural, social, ecological, and economic conditions as well as the range of structures, services, and amenities within our communities.2,8 Undermining the US diet and healthy food choices and practices is the growing physical divide between people and the places where food is grown.9,10 This division has resulted in a loss of experience with fundamental processes associated with growing food; limited access to alternative, viable, and affordable food sources (farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture, small-scale grocery venues, food cooperatives); and changes in food choices.11

Healthy-eating strategies that are place based (e.g., land policies and environmental changes that support and secure community farms and gardens) and that encourage positive social, emotional, and cultural connections may represent important aspects of health promotion efforts to increase fruit and vegetable consumption.2,8,12 Previous research suggests that social and psychological processes and aesthetic experiences set, shape, and sustain beliefs and food preferences, choices, and practices.9,1316 Moreover, growing evidence indicates that community gardens represent a viable strategy to tap into these processes by fostering connections among community members and, importantly, connections between people and food-producing landscapes.17 By allowing residents to actively engage in natural and social processes on an ongoing basis, the garden can promote a tacit and more holistic understanding of food-related behaviors among its members and others affected by such neighborhood places.

SOCIAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL CORRELATES OF FRUIT AND VEGETABLE CONSUMPTION

Fruit and vegetable consumption has been shown to vary across neighborhoods suggesting that beyond individual factors such as individual socioeconomic status, psychological and social factors are important in shaping these behaviors.18

“Environmental aesthetics” refer to the ways we respond to and give back to our surroundings, including the social and physical environments in which we are immersed.19 From a public health perspective, experiences of neighborhood environmental aesthetics have been shown to influence health behaviors, such as the walking habits of adults in various urban environments in the United States and Australia,2022 and obesity among urban adults.23 Such experiences give way to processes such as neighborhood attachment, which further influence environmental and health behaviors.19,24

“Neighborhood attachment” relates to one's emotional bond to neighborhoods and may influence one's access to and use of everyday places.25,26 It is shaped by features of the built environment and perceptions of that environment,27 such as aesthetics. It can promote stability, involvement, and investment in the physical and social characteristics of the neighborhood and thus yield individual and neighborhood-level benefits.2830 Positive neighborhood attachment has been shown to lead to higher levels of social involvement (e.g., getting together with friends, participating in formal and informal community and neighborhood activities)25,31 and to serve as an important cognitive backdrop for human–environment interactions that are vital to health behaviors.32

Social structures and social processes have been shown to be important in explaining health behaviors and health status.3335 Social involvement (also referred to as social participation) has been shown to be associated with cardiovascular and total mortality among Norwegian adults36 and with health behaviors such as fruit and vegetable consumption and physical activity among Swedish adults aged 18 to 65 years.35,37 Social involvement enables access to social resources and opportunities for social learning, and it helps define and reinforce meaningful social roles (e.g., within the home and neighborhood settings).33

Aesthetic experiences, together with processes such as neighborhood attachment and social involvement, shape one's understanding and appreciation of the social, physical, cultural, and natural landscapes and the range of interactions within these settings. Such appreciation and interactions promote individual feelings of security, which may inform an individual's willingness to venture outdoors and take advantage of neighborhood resources.26

GARDENS AS A PLACE TO PROMOTE FRUIT AND VEGETABLE CONSUMPTION

Community and home gardens represent a promising approach to foster healthy behaviors.17,38,39 They represent everyday landscapes that connect people to nature, require active and sustained involvement by participants, and enable participants to engage with others directly and indirectly, thereby gaining knowledge about ecological systems, the growing and preparing of food, and, more broadly, about health and wellness.38,4046 Moreover, such connections are recognized to support social and psychological processes such as beneficial aesthetic experiences, neighborhood attachment, and collective efficacy.47,48

Several studies in different US urban settings suggest that gardeners have healthier diets than do people who do not garden.39,49 In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, gardeners consumed more vegetables such as dark leafy greens, eggplant, and tomatoes, and fewer milk products, citrus fruits and sweet foods, and drinks than did non-gardeners.49 In Flint, Michigan, individuals in community gardening households consumed fruits and vegetables 1.4 more times per day than did those in non–community gardening households and were 3.5 times more likely to consume fruits and vegetables 5 or more times per day.39

CONCEPTUAL AND ANALYTIC FRAMEWORK

The theoretical basis of our study is informed by ecological8,50 and social cognitive theories of behavior change,51 both of which recognize the importance of a range of influences at intrapersonal, interpersonal, cultural, organizational, environmental, and policy levels.8,51,52 Ecological and social cognitive theories recognize the importance of the bidirectional interaction of individual processes, environment, and behavior.53

We aimed to provide insights into (1) social and psychological factors that shape fruit and vegetable consumption in an urban setting and (2) community-based healthy eating strategies that address those factors. Accordingly, we analyzed the relationships between social involvement, neighborhood attachment, and perceived neighborhood aesthetics and fruit and vegetable consumption. We then considered the association between home and community gardening and fruit and vegetable consumption, controlling for demographic, neighborhood perception, and health covariates.

METHODS

We collected survey data between October 2006 and November 2007 in block groups east of a major interstate highway (I-25) bisecting the city of Denver, Colorado. We used a multiframe sampling design, which is a useful methodology for sampling rare populations; it consisted of an area-based sample of the general population and a list-based census of community gardeners. We powered this study to detect changes with a block-group size of 48 and a total recruitment goal of 480 households.

Within the area-based sample, we randomly selected 1151 households to participate in the survey. Within the list-based sample, we enumerated all gardens within the study area (n = 33) and randomly selected 13 community gardens to participate in the survey. We then selected 300 gardeners associated with these gardens to participate in the survey. The area- and list-based sample resulted in a total sample of 1451 households in 92 block groups; all households were located within 1 mile of a community garden.

Physical inaccessibility (e.g., access-controlled apartment buildings, gated residential communities, and unrestrained dogs) prevented us from reaching 648 households. A total of 474 of the 803 contacted households responded to the survey (response rate = 59%).

The number of block groups with a group size of 1 household in our original sample was relatively large (n = 34). We restricted our sample to include only block groups with a minimum group size of 2 households (n = 58) to reduce the impact of small group sizes on group-level variance estimates and on standard errors.54,55 In this restricted data set, the average group size was 7.5 respondents per block group.

Data Collection

We collected data via a 45-minute face-to-face survey at or near the homes of sampled English- or Spanish-speaking adults aged 18 years or older. One eligible respondent was randomly selected from each household using the last-birthday selection method. We obtained written consent from the respondent prior to survey administration. We developed the survey instrument from existing questionnaires on aesthetics,21 social involvement,56 neighborhood attachment,57 physical activity,58 and dimensions of health.59 We used qualitative information from our previous work in these neighborhoods to inform the content of our survey.

Dependent Measure

We developed a measure of fruit and vegetable intake (6 items) based on items developed for the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS).7,59 These questions ask respondents about the frequency (per day, week, or month) of intake of green salad, nonfried potatoes, carrots, other vegetables, fruit juice, and whole fruits. Participants were not given a definition of serving size.

Individual Measures

Gardener status.

To understand self-perceptions about gardening, we asked respondents, “Do you garden?” Respondents who answered yes were then asked whether they gardened at home or in a community garden. These responses provided a measure of whether respondents considered themselves community gardeners, home gardeners, or nongardeners.

Physical activity.

We assessed physical activity behaviors using the Community Healthy Activities Model Program for Seniors (CHAMPS) instrument.58 We generated a categorical measure of total physical activity by combining hours reported for leisure and moderate-to-vigorous intensity activities and trichotomized it into low, medium, and high activity groups. This instrument captured a broad range of activities, including golf, dance, swimming, tennis, running, walking for exercise, walking to do errands, and light and heavy gardening.

Self-rated health and body mass index.

We assessed self-rated health using a single item from the BRFSS, which asked respondents to rate their general health on a scale of 1 (poor) to 5 (excellent). This item has been shown to be a reliable and valid predictor of health status.59,60 We assessed body mass index (BMI) using self-reported weight in kilograms divided by self-reported height in meters squared. We grouped respondents into 3 categories: normal weight (BMI < 25), overweight (BMI 25 < 30), and obese (BMI ≥ 30).59

Psychological and social processes.

Neighborhood aesthetics assessed residents’ perceptions of the presence of trees, shade, litter, interesting things to look at while walking, attractive natural sights, and attractive buildings in the neighborhood (α = 0.76).21 Neighborhood attachment measured perceptions such as, this neighborhood “is the ideal neighborhood to live in,” “is a part of me,” “has places to which I am very emotionally attached,” and “is hard to leave” (α = 0.86).57 Social involvement captured engagement in local activities, including communications with local elected officials regarding neighborhood problems and participation in neighborhood meetings (α = 0.73). We trichotomized these variables into low, medium, and high groups.56

Compositional control variables.

We included self-reports of age, gender, race or ethnic background (recoded non-Hispanic White vs other), highest year of school completed, and reliance on public assistance in the analysis. Income was not included in the models because of the large number of missing responses (n = 42) and its correlation with education level (r = 0.50).

Neighborhood socioeconomic status.

We used a dichotomous block-group variable of educational attainment (i.e., US Census block-group percentage with a college degree) as our neighborhood measure of socioeconomic status.61

Data Analysis

We used multilevel analytic models to evaluate the relationship between fruit and vegetable consumption and our variables of interest while accounting for differences in fruit and vegetable consumption between block groups. We estimated statistical models of respondents nested within block groups using PROC MIXED in SAS version 9.2 (SAS Institute, Cary, NC). We calculated mean number of times per day of fruit and vegetable consumption by study covariates using the LSMEANS command within SAS PROC MIXED procedure. This command allows for multiple comparison adjustment to the P values for the pairwise comparison of means.62

We constructed a series of multilevel models, starting with an intercept-only model to assess whether fruit and vegetable consumption varied across block groups. We then developed conceptual domain-specific models. Our preliminary multivariable model (data not shown) included compositional variables such as race/ethnicity, age, gender, educational attainment, public assistance, and block-group educational attainment. Of these variables, educational attainment and age were significantly associated with fruit and vegetable consumption and thus were included in our analytic models (A–C). The health model (model A) included educational attainment, age, hours of total physical activity, BMI, and self-rated health. The social-psychological model (model B) included significant variables from model A in addition to neighborhood attachment, perceived environmental aesthetics, and social involvement. The final model (model C) included significant variables from models A and B in addition to the garden participation variable. We used a model-based approach for weighting in these analyses by incorporating variables used to create the sampling weights in the models. This is the preferred approach when covariates of primary interest are highly correlated with the weighting variables, as was the case in our study.63 Statistical models were checked for instances of multicollinearity and found to be acceptable.

RESULTS

Most study participants were White (57%) and women (68%) and held a college degree (56%). Approximately 40% of respondents reported receiving some public assistance during the past year. The mean age of respondents was 46 years. On average, respondents consumed fruits and vegetables 4.4 times per day, and 33% of participants consumed fruits and vegetables at least 5 times per day. Respondents reported an average of 17 hours of physical activity per week and a BMI of 26.2. Respondents generally reported their health to be good. Most respondents reported participating in some type of gardening (57%), which included community gardening (9%) and home gardening (48%; e.g., backyard, container, neighbor's garden).

Fruit and vegetable consumption was statistically higher among respondents with at least a college degree (Table 1). Consumption of fruits and vegetables was also higher among respondents who reported higher levels of physical activity, who had a “normal” BMI (< 25), and who rated their health as very good or excellent. Residents who were involved in social activities, had medium to high levels of neighborhood attachment, and had more positive ratings of neighborhood aesthetics consumed more fruits and vegetables than did their counterparts. People who participated in community and home gardens reported higher levels of fruit and vegetable consumption than did nongardeners. Moreover, 56% of community gardeners consumed fruits and vegetables at least 5 times per day, compared with 37% of home gardeners and 25% of nongardeners.

TABLE 1
Fruit and Vegetable Consumption by Demographic, Socioeconomic, and Perceived Social and Environmental Covariates: Denver, CO, 2006–2007

Results from our bivariable and multivariable models are presented in Table 2. Changes in model coefficients can be observed by comparing baseline estimates of the bivariable associations with estimates derived for our 3 multivariable models (A–C). Residents with a college degree or higher consumed more fruits and vegetables than did residents with less than a college degree (model A). Physical activity levels were positively associated with fruit and vegetable consumption, after adjustment for educational attainment. BMI and self-rated health were not associated with fruit and vegetable consumption after adjustment for educational attainment and physical activity and thus were not included in the final multivariable models shown in Table 2.

TABLE 2
Hierarchical Linear Model Results on the Relationship Between Fruit and Vegetable Consumption and Individual Characteristics, Social Processes, and Environmental Perceptions: Denver, CO, 2006–2007

Residents who reported higher levels of social involvement and more positive perceptions of neighborhood aesthetics also reported higher consumption of fruits and vegetables (model B). Adjustment for educational attainment and total hours of physical activity reduced but did not eliminate this strong association. In model C, community gardeners reported statistically higher consumption of fruits and vegetables than did nongardeners. Adjustment for educational attainment, physical activity, social involvement, and perceptions of neighborhood aesthetics reduced but did not eliminate this association; however, the difference in fruit and vegetable consumption between home gardeners and nongardeners that was observed in the bivariable analysis was no longer significant. The relationship between perceived neighborhood aesthetics and fruit and vegetable consumption was further reduced in our final model and was not statistically significant. Physical activity levels were consistently associated with fruit and vegetable consumption across all models.

DISCUSSION

Our analysis showed that community gardeners reported higher intake of fruits and vegetables than did home gardeners and nongardeners. Moreover, this analysis shed light on the relationships between several key social and psychological processes and fruit and vegetable consumption. We found that social involvement was associated with fruit and vegetable consumption, after adjusting for educational attainment, physical activity level, and neighborhood aesthetics. Social involvement, which represents one dimension of social capital, has been shown previously to relate to vegetable consumption.35 Specifically, levels of participation in informal and formal groups were shown to be a strong correlate of vegetable consumption, independent of socioeconomic status.35 In our analysis, community garden participation reduced the relationship between social involvement and fruit and vegetable consumption, suggesting that community gardening accounted for significant variance, above that accounted for by social involvement. In previous work, we found that the success of community gardens was largely dependent on strong neighborhood leadership, outreach, and volunteerism, all attributes that reflect higher levels of social involvement.47

Focusing on how aesthetic engagement with biological and ecological processes leads to learning about one's own ecological embeddedness in settings such as botanic gardens, Neves argued that such learning can give way to a holistic sense of self—one that is relational and interactively connected to the surrounding environment.64 Applied to neighborhood health, understanding neighborhood perceptions may give us a more holistic appreciation of how these connections are associated with a variety of health-related behaviors, such as fruit and vegetable consumption.15,2023,65

In our study, using the perceived neighborhood aesthetics measure developed by Saelens et al.,21 we found perceived neighborhood aesthetics to be positively correlated with fruit and vegetable consumption. This finding suggests that neighborhood aesthetics may be important not only for shaping activity patterns20,21,65,66 but also for influencing dietary behaviors. The addition of garden participation decreased the association between aesthetics and fruit and vegetable consumption, suggesting that the garden experience may play a role in fostering healthy aesthetic associations. This is supported by our qualitative findings on aesthetics and health, in which community gardeners talked about the garden as a way to awaken the senses and support a more holistic way to contemplate health and wellness. As one gardener put it,

I feel like I'm a co-creator in the world with my garden, helping bring forth life, nurturance. It nurtures me as much as I nurture it. And it gives me hope.

This sense of reciprocity is further contextualized in the way the physical and social environment translates to health; as another gardener said,

We not only told them about taking care of the land and taking care of the environment, but part of our responsibility is taking care of ourselves as human beings and taking care of our bodies and eating better. That's why you grow all these fruits.

Such garden-inspired understanding of health may inform the association we found between garden participation and fruit and vegetable consumption.46 After adjustment for socioeconomic status, health, and social and psychological covariates, community gardeners consumed almost a serving more of fruits and vegetables per day than did home gardeners and nongardeners. Moreover, a larger percentage of community gardeners and home gardeners than of nongardeners consumed the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables per day. Using the same items to assess fruit and vegetable consumption, Alaimo et al.39 found consumption differences between community gardeners and nongardeners in Flint, Michigan. Among Flint residents, 32% of households participating in community gardens consumed fruits and vegetables at least 5 times per day, compared with 18% of households that did not participate in community gardens.39 On the basis of national survey data, only 25% of the US population consumes fruits and vegetables at least 5 times per day. Our findings suggest that community gardening may represent a viable way to increase this percentage.67,68

Limitations

A number of issues need to be considered in interpreting the study results. First, the degree of bias attributed to self-selection is unknown. Moreover, dietary history is self-reported and subject to social desirability response and recall biases. The direction of this bias may lead to overestimates or underestimates of prevalence of fruit and vegetable consumption. Second, the data included in our analysis are multilevel, reflecting resident-level data nested within block groups. Using a fully unconditional model, we assessed the intraclass correlation coefficient to be 7%, indicating that fruit and vegetable consumption patterns vary by neighborhood. Thus, multilevel models are necessary to adjust for neighborhood variation given the potential risk of type 1 errors when using single-level models to analyze data that are multilevel in their structure.54 Although we were able to adjust for neighborhood variation in our analysis, we did not incorporate structural aspects of the neighborhood food environment (e.g., presence and quality of neighborhood grocery stores and other food outlets). These factors may be important in explaining dietary behaviors.8,69,70

Third, the cross-sectional design of the study captures only a one-time assessment of our key variables of interest. Thus, we were not able to draw conclusions regarding a causal relationship between these variables. However, findings from our qualitative research on the meaning of community gardens to the participants showed that involvement led to emotional and social changes. Many of the interviewees described themselves as not being very comfortable in social settings. The anonymity of gardening a plot allows gardeners to ease into a social setting in which they have things in common with others.47

Notwithstanding these limitations, our analysis included an in-person survey and secondary data. We used well-established measures for the variables selected for this analysis. Moreover, the constructs and approach used to support this survey were largely shaped by the knowledge gained through our qualitative research.46,47

Conclusions

Our study describes social and psychological processes that affect fruit and vegetable consumption and the potential of community gardens to influence these behaviors.8,7175 The array of qualities intrinsic to community gardens makes them a unique environmental and social intervention that can narrow the divide between people and the places where food is grown and increase local opportunities to eat better. On the basis of this study, coupled with other academic and policy research, land planners, health officials, and policymakers should aim to do the following:

  • Weave community gardens throughout the fabric of communities.
  • Encourage programming that connects community gardens to other nodes in the local food system, including food banks, farmers’ markets, and local chef networks.
  • Consider community gardens as a primary and permanent open space option as part of master planning efforts, on a par with valued elements such as playgrounds, bike trails, and community plazas.
  • Include community gardens in land-planning processes rather than as an afterthought in urban development projects.
  • Establish zoning codes that protect gardens, while liberally allowing them in appropriate zone codes and identifying them as a use by right.
  • Consider gardens as a viable use across institutionalized properties where gardens become part of the permanent programming of a site, such as schools and affordable housing developments.

Acknowledgments

This study was supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Health Protection Research Initiative (K01 Award EH-000066-03), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Center for Research Resources (NCRR), and the Colorado Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute (CCTSI) (grant UL1RR025780).

We gratefully acknowledge Wendy Peters-Moschetti (project manager), Ian Bates, Laura Diaz, Nick Gruber, Alex Harker, Bettina Haro Oliva, Rosalind May, Lenore Palumbo, Ruth Montoya-Starr, Briony Schnee, Amy Telligman, David Villareal, and Elisa Villareal (field staff). We are thankful for the support and guidance from our network of community residents (the Healthy Neighborhood Network), community partners (FrontRange Earth Force and Denver Urban Gardens), and our project collaborators (Joy Amulya, PhD, Learning for Innovation, Inc, and Fahriye Sancar, PhD, University of Colorado College of Architecture and Planning).

Note. The contents of this article are the authors’ sole responsibility and do not necessarily represent the official views of the funding agencies.

Human Participant Protection

The Colorado Multiple Institutional Review Board approved this study, and all participants signed informed consent forms.

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