Crops from school gardens are popping up at stores and markets — here’s where to buy them

photo by: Nick Krug

After a morning of harvesting, mulching and watering, gardeners Nancy O'Connor, director of education outreach at the The Merc, Abigail Fowler, Jordan Kryfka, Corinne Mikulik and Marcia Fisher, education outreach assistant at The Merc, break out with their post-gardening ritual chant, "Grow Food. Grow health. Whoo!," on Monday, June 13, 2016 at the school garden outside West Middle School.

If Laura Leonard’s students ever need a good job reference, they know where to turn. It may be summer vacation, but for a handful of current, future and past Liberty Memorial Central Middle School students, there’s still work to be done.

It’s mostly the kids — who range from grades 4 to 11 — responsible for maintaining the school’s garden, says Leonard, a sixth-grade English teacher at Central. During the summer, students spend at least a few hours every week in the garden. The kids sign up for shifts; show up to plant, weed and harvest; and then take their produce off to market.

“They price everything, they do all the finance, they do the table setup … It’s the kids’ project, and we just kind of let them do their thing,” says Leonard, who founded her school’s garden in 2011.

This week, we delivered 20 pints of gooseberries to @themerccoop Bakery! Destined for cheesecake coming soon!

Posted by Growing Food, Growing Health School Garden Project on Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Profits from sales at the Cottin’s Hardware farmers market have helped sustain Central’s garden program over the years, says Leonard, whose students (she counts about 30 involved with the garden this season) sell their produce every Thursday from 4 to 6:30 p.m. at Cottin’s, 1832 Massachusetts St.

The store, Leonard points out, is “literally just down the street” from the school, at 1400 Massachusetts St. Each summer, the student gardeners generate anywhere from $500 to $1,000 from their sales at Cottin’s farmers market.

This week, they’ll have chard, kale and basil at their table, Leonard says. Also growing this summer: sweet potatoes, red onions, raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, bell peppers and eight varieties of tomatoes.

Harvest day! Come see us at the Cottons farmers market tonight from 4 to 6:30!

The students choose which crops to grow on their 4,500-sqaure-foot plot, Leonard says. They also have the opportunity to take some of their produce home to their families.

But selling produce through Cottin’s has helped foster relationships between the student gardeners and their neighbors, who often stop by the school to check out the garden before seeing the kids at Cottin’s later in the week, Leonard says.

“The sustainability piece is really important, because it means we’re financially able to keep going,” she says. “But that relationship-building in our community is so much more important for our students. And that community-building piece is a large part of why we have been successful.”

Central is one of three Lawrence middle schools that sell student-grown produce to the public; the other two are West Middle School and Southwest Middle School. Local Farm 2 School programming is funded and supported by the district’s nutrition and wellness department, which also operates smaller gardens at nine of the district’s 14 elementary schools. Because of their size and emphasis on education over production, these smaller plots don’t yield enough produce to sell. Several schools do grow enough to supplement their cafeterias’ salad bars with a few items during the school day, however.

Work hard, plant, eat.

The produce growing at the schools runs the gamut from lettuce and tomatoes to fresh herbs and cucumbers, Jennie Lazarus, the district’s outdoor education coordinator, tells the Journal-World.

“Several schools even sell berries, apples and other fruits, cut flowers and value added items such as jellies/jams,” Lazarus writes in an email.

West Middle School has long maintained a partnership with The Merc Co-op through the Community Mercantile Education Foundation’s Growing Food, Growing Health School Garden Project.

Nearly 20,500 pounds of produce have been harvested from West’s garden since the program began in 2010, according to Nancy O’Connor, director of education and outreach at The Merc. For nine growing seasons now, the school’s crops have been sold in the store’s produce section and incorporated into dishes in the deli and bakery.

One of West’s best-growing crops is beets, O’Connor says. Just within the last month alone, the school has delivered 35 pounds of beets to sell at The Merc. In the fall, the star is sweet potato.

Right now, you can buy bunches of rainbow chard, curly kale and beets for about $2.50 a pop. The store also offers fresh herbs like basil and mint, and, in the next two weeks, students will begin harvesting potatoes, onions and tomatoes.

Student gardeners can often be seen handing out samples around the store.

“It’s pretty compelling if a 14-year-old asks if you want to sample beet salad,” O’Connor says, adding, “It builds a connection that is really quite extraordinary.”

Other places to find school-garden produce:

• Southwest Middle School sells its crops at several locations around town. The school’s fresh herbs can often be found in the produce section at Hy-Vee on 23rd Street, and also, at times, in menu items at downtown’s Merchants Pub and Plate, 746 Massachusetts St.

Southwest’s student gardeners are also regulars at the Clinton Parkway Nursery farmers market, 4900 Clinton Parkway, from April through October. Check out the market on Wednesdays from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. for Southwest-grown produce.

• South Middle School, which will become Billy Mills Middle School as of July 1, doesn’t yield enough to sell its garden’s crops to the public. The garden does provide food for its student gardeners and other South families, however.

Correction: This article originally misstated the number of Lawrence elementary schools that keep gardens. The Lawrence district has 14 elementary schools, nine of which have gardens.


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