School gardeners hope to donate 2,000 pounds of produce to Just Food this growing season

photo by: Kathy Hanks

Nancy O'Connor, left, director of Education and Outreach with The Merc, and Elise Gard, a student gardener with the Growing Food Growing Health project at West Middle School, 2700 Harvard Road, remove the plastic protecting plants on April 19, 2019.

Nancy O’Connor and Elise Gard carefully lifted the plastic off the low tunnel, revealing big heads of buttercrunch lettuce that would be ready to harvest in a few weeks.

When that time arrives, Gard and other young gardeners working with the Growing Food Growing Health project at West Middle School will gather the lettuce. They’ll wash and bag the greens and place a sticker with the project’s logo on each bag. Then the produce will go to Just Food, the food bank for Lawrence and Douglas County, where it will be distributed to those in need.

Established in 2010, the school garden, with its neat mulched pathways, is operated by the Community Mercantile Education Foundation. In past years, some of the vegetables had gone to the school cafeteria, with most sold at The Merc, 901 Iowa St.

“We have always sold the produce to help sustain the project,” said O’Connor, director of education and outreach with The Merc and executive director of the CMEF. “Now we want to take what we have learned and help feed our community.”

Along with two vegetable plots, there is an orchard with five kinds of apple and pear trees on the school property at 2700 Harvard Road. During the upcoming growing season, the student gardeners hope to donate 2,000 pounds of produce to Just Food, 1000 E. 11th St.

Currently, five experienced young gardeners are paid to work on the plot. They planted potatoes, onions, lettuce and cabbage in March. Three eighth graders will be hired in the next several weeks.

“It’s an excellent mix of ages, with varying levels of experience and responsibility. Students will be teaching students,” O’Connor said.

This will be Gard’s sixth year with the garden. Now 19, she is a student at the University of Kansas, majoring in environmental studies. She began working in the garden when she was an eighth grader at West Middle School. She had gardened with her family and decided to take the opportunity to be paid to do what she enjoyed.

Partnering with Just Food works well with the mission of the project, which focuses on connecting people to locally grown fruits and vegetables, O’Connor noted.

In 2018, a second garden plot was started by CMEF at First Step at Lake View, a residential addiction treatment facility for women and children in Lawrence. That garden is also maintained by the crew of student gardeners. Once a week, the women who live there also help in the garden.

Over the years, Gard has learned more than just how to grow vegetables. She said it was about making connections with people as the group inspires them to eat healthy.

“This is more than how to grow vegetables,” O’Connor said. “This is leadership development.”

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