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    “I am Flevo Campus”: Esther Veen and Iris Rijnaarts

    Esther Veen and Iris Rijnaarts’ research is indispensable at a place like the Flevo Campus, an innovative meeting place for sharing knowledge about food. These scientists from Wageningen believe that gardening during convalescence can help those recovering from cancer. This spring, the Healing Gardens got underway at the Parkhuys in Almere.

    And just to finally put the old preconceptions about people from Wageningen to rest, the days of corduroy flares and woollen socks are over. Veen and Rijnaarts are able to laugh about this stereotype, as they know their research area is now of great interest to a wide audience. “Working with food and in the garden is hip now,” says Esther Veen. “As a sociologist, I find it interesting to know how this came about and I also find the relationship that people living in cities have with the countryside fascinating.” In 2015, Veen conducted research into the social effects of urban agriculture. Among other things, she discovered that gardening in a communal garden facilitated conversation with fellow gardeners and that those living in the community found it easier to ask each other for help if they needed it.

    But what if gardening generates more than just healthy vegetables and a nice conversation—what if it also has medical effects? For example, what if gardening could help cancer patients recover from illness? Researchers in the United States have already discovered positive effects in breast cancer patients. They discovered that while they were gardening, the patients ate more fruits and vegetables and their muscles became stronger. “It’s difficult to compare the US with the Netherlands,” says Veen, “because, for example, people cycle here.” The Head/Principal Investigator at the AMS Institute, Professor Ellen Kampman of the Human Nutrition Research Center would therefore like to conduct this research in the Netherlands with different cancer patients and with the addition of the social dimension. “A support group doesn’t work for everyone, but social support is an important aspect of the recovery process,” says Veen. “I know from my earlier research that gardening makes it easier to talk about personal topics, and that it’s also okay to say nothing at all. My research focuses in particular on whether or not there is an added value in gardening with peers. Does it help people clear their head? Does it help them deal with stress?”

    Together with researcher Iris Rijnaarts, Veen was given the opportunity to design the project and draft a funding application. If funding is allocated, research will start in 2019. “To conduct preliminary research, we started with a pilot program,” says Veen. “Also because it’s all totally new, and we could overcome any teething problems.” One of these initial hurdles was very practical one: finding one day in the week when the group could come together. In the Parkhuys garden, fruit and vegetable containers are built high and low. This is because constant bending is too hard for some participants, Rijnaarts explains. “One must bear in mind that not everybody can bend well. Everything we are doing now will be useful to know for the larger-scale research.”

    Rijnaarts is focusing on the physical side of the research. “There is research showing that if you have had cancer, you are at greater risk of diabetes or cardiovascular disease,” she says. “It is therefore even more important for this group to live a healthy lifestyle.” Rijnaarts knows from her internship experience at a hospital that healthy food and regular exercise is difficult when you are sick or recovering. “You have other things on your mind. People with other diseases, like diabetes, are often actively supported with their diet, but there is sometimes a lack of support for cancer patients after they have been treated,” she says. “There are guidelines concerning exercise and the eating of sufficient fruit and vegetables, but figures show that less than 25 percent succeed in following the guidelines.”

    This is precisely where tending to a vegetable garden might produce the desired results. “Who wants to go to the gym immediately after surviving cancer?” Veen asks. The theory is that it is better for people to do something they like and, in this way, it will be easier for them to follow the guidelines. “People who have recently recovered from illness must also be kind to themselves; gardening takes a physical toll.”

    Rijnaarts adds that there is evidence that exercise after an illness like cancer is healthy, but that earlier research was conducted in the gym. “After twelve weeks, when the study was over, people didn’t go to the gym any more. This type of research ought to bring about a change in lifestyle,” says Veen. “We know that gardening leads to more exercise and the consumption of greater amounts of fruit and vegetables, but the most ground-breaking achievement would be if people continue to do it afterwards and make it part of their routine. The ideal result would be if they think to themselves, ‘The sun is shining, I think I’ll go do some work in the garden.’”

    Everything can be grown in the square meter containers in Parkhuys’ front garden, from radishes to pak choi and onions to a whole container of potatoes. The six participants in the pilot will be supervised by a gardener who has set out a cultivation plan lasting until October. There was actually room for fifteen participants in the study, but recruiting people has not yet proven easy. “That’s also something we’ve learned,” says Veen. “I’m also going to interview people who did not want to participate in the study, to find out what their reasons were. For example, there was someone who wanted to garden, but did not like the fact it was going to be a study.”

    In reports on the research, all participants will, in principle, remain anonymous. Rijnaarts and Veen want this study to be, as much as possible, an activity rather than research. They do, however, conduct some interviews and take measurements in between. Rijnaarts tests the muscle strength of the participants for the second time with a special squeezing device. Another test is one in which the participants have to walk for six minutes to see if their condition has improved. “The group is too small to be statistically significant,” says Rijnaarts, “but you can certainly look at personal development.”

    150 people are expected to take part in the larger-scale research. Their dietary intake, level of movement, vitamin D content in the blood, body composition and bone strength, among other things, will be monitored. “We will be looking at the physical side on the one hand, and the social side on the other,” says Veen. “Is there contact with peers? Does quality of life increase, do they feel better and does their appetite increase or decrease? “

    Back in the garden, Veen looks at the plants in the containers and then says, relieved, “I’m very happy that they are growing so well. Beforehand I thought, imagine if nothing grows! It was really important for this to be a positive experience for those who have been through such difficult times. It would have been terrible if nothing had grown.” Participants can do whatever they like with the harvest. Then, she says to Rijnaarts, “Oh yes, we still have to discuss that cooking workshop!”

    The Healing Gardens research is part of the AMS Institute’s ‘The Feeding City’ research programme, a scientific partner of the Flevo Campus, and was conducted by Wageningen University in collaboration with Flevo Hospital, Parkhuys and Aeres High School.

    Interview by  Felicia Alberding
    All photographs by Maarten Delobel