Newswise — Most gardeners say that homegrown vegetables taste better than any found in a store. And gardening, they know, requires modest amounts of outdoor work. Since cancer survivors need vegetables, fresh air and exercise, Cindy Blair, PhD, is bringing a new vegetable gardening study called Harvest for Health to New Mexico.

“Vegetable gardening is a holistic approach to promote a healthful diet and physical activity, and improve quality of life,” she says.

Blair is a cancer epidemiologist at The University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center and UNM School of Medicine. Prior to joining UNM as an assistant professor, Blair spent two years working with Wendy Demark-Wahnefried, PhD, RD, on the initial research conducted at the University of Alabama at Birmingham in collaboration with the Alabama Cooperative Extension Office.

The pilot study in Alabama paired cancer survivors with local master gardeners who visited the survivors at their homes and taught them how to start and care for their gardens. The study found that survivors who grew their own vegetables ate more vegetables and increased their physical activity, too. At the end of the study, all survivors said they would “do it again,” and 86 percent of the survivors were still gardening one year later.

Blair now wants to adapt the Harvest for Health program for New Mexico’s unique culture and environment. To do that, she and her UNM team have partnered with Eduardo Servin, PhD, state manager for Master Gardeners at New Mexico State University, and the Albuquerque Area Extension Master Gardener Program.

In the New Mexico pilot study, each cancer survivor will be paired with a local master gardener who has been trained in gardening techniques that address New Mexico’s growing challenges. The pair will create a vegetable garden at the survivor’s home using gardening supplies, plants and seeds provided by the study. The gardener will visit each month to answer questions and troubleshoot gardening problems; the survivor will maintain the garden and, of course, enjoy the harvest.

The New Mexico pilot study will be limited to Bernalillo and South Sandoval counties so that the research team can assess the cancer survivors’ health and the program’s needs. After the pilot study is completed, Blair plans to expand the program to other counties, and eventually, make it available statewide.