Even during pandemic, student-led garden continues to produce food for vulnerable communities, grow young leaders

photo by: Dylan Lysen

Nancy O'Connor, right, and student mentors Elise and Alex Gard, who are now both KU students, operate the Growing Food Growing Health market outside of Edgewood, a Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority residential property, on Wednesday, July 8, 2020. The garden provides free produce to the residents of Edgewood throughout the summer.

In the morning heat this summer, several Lawrence youths have been getting their hands dirty by taking care of a robust garden just outside of West Middle School.

While the gardeners, ages 14 to 20, could be sleeping in like many of their classmates, some recently told the Journal-World why they prefer spending their time in the Growing Food Growing Health garden.

Almost all of them have worked multiple summers at the garden, which now provides free produce to vulnerable communities in Lawrence.

“I just love the connection we have with the community,” said Maggie Li, a Free State High School junior. “It’s really heartwarming to see the impact our project has on the people who are receiving it.”

The garden also provides opportunities for local students to grow as leaders, especially amid the challenges that have arisen during the coronavirus pandemic, said Nancy O’Connor, executive director of Community Mercantile Education Foundation, the nonprofit organization that oversees the garden program. It’s also an actual job experience for the student employees, who are paid for their work.

Now in its 11th season, the Growing Food Growing Health garden at West Middle School has grown more than 25,000 pounds of produce.

“What is most remarkable, in this extraordinary year of COVID, is the commitment this project has to being part of a solution — youth empowered to grow food, prepare it with great care, then once a week set up a free market,” O’Connor said. “It is true food justice work. The six youth who do all this work are inspiring, and their work ethic (is) amazing.”

Local produce and food justice

After picking and packaging produce Wednesday morning, Elise Gard set up the garden’s free market in Edgewood, a low-income community in Lawrence, with O’Connor and Elise’s brother, Alex Gard.

The market was simple, consisting of a table with an assortment of vegetables — tomatoes, kale, cucumbers and other produce — and flowers laid out for easy picking.

Elise, a junior at the University of Kansas and the oldest of the students operating the garden, said providing the food meant a lot to her. She’s studying environmental studies and social justice, which are directly related to the garden’s mission of supporting sustainable and healthy local food systems for everyone.

“It really speaks to what I’m doing in school and having a real-world application of it,” Elise said. “I’m sure this is also a reason I’m studying (environmental studies and social justice).”

photo by: Dylan Lysen

Rows of popcorn and potatoes grow in the Growing Food Growing Health garden at West Middle School on Wednesday, July 8, 2020. The garden grows a wide variety of produce throughout the year.

Like many of the students who work for the garden, Elise joined the program after she finished eighth grade at West Middle School. Years later, even though she’s now in college, Elise said she continued to participate in the program because she enjoys watching it evolve.

The program originally sold its produce to markets, then eventually donated it to Just Food, a local food bank, Elise said. But even then, some people still couldn’t access the food because they did not have transportation to the food bank, she said. Through the free market set up on Wednesday, the garden was taking its produce directly to those in need.

“Even though we did give to Just Food and people in need were getting the food, there were still other people who couldn’t go to Just Food,” she said. “Now, we are literally bringing the food to their doorsteps.”

The program has also given the students an opportunity to meet their clients face to face, albeit with masks now because of the pandemic, she said.

“The garden, for me, has been a really good place to come to get away from my apartment,” Elise said. “It’s a really good time to safely connect with people while also doing really great work.”

Personal growth

Other students noted the personal benefits of participating in the program.

Taisha Retter, a Free State junior working for the garden, said the program gave her more confidence. As a veteran worker in the garden, Taisha is expected to be a mentor for new students who join, part of the program’s mission to grow young leaders.

“I used to be a lot more quiet than I am now,” Taisha said. “Now I’m a little more confident in myself because I have to teach the newer gardeners.”

Elise and Alex, who were at one time Taisha’s mentors, said they had noticed her come out of her shell through the program.

“You can see the growth of a student across the entire year,” Alex said. “That’s a good progression to see.”

photo by: Dylan Lysen

Sunflowers in the Growing Food Growing Health garden face the rising sun the morning of Wednesday, July 8, 2020. Along with produce, the garden grows many colorful flowers as well.

O’Connor said during the 11 seasons of the program, no student has ever dropped out before the end of the growing season nor has a student ever been fired. Instead, she notices the students often show up before they are expected to be there for work.

Normally during the spring semester, the program would meet with outgoing West Middle School eighth graders to inform them about the mission of the garden and the job opportunity it provides. But this year, the pandemic made that impossible, O’Connor said. So the garden gained only one new member, Maebelle Hamlin.

O’Connor said Maebelle, who will be a freshman at Lawrence High School in the fall, is a good example of a student dedicated to the cause. Despite the lack of recruitment opportunities, Maebelle reached out to the program asking for the opportunity to join, O’Connor said.

Although she attended a different school, Liberty Memorial Central Middle School, Maebelle has had experience with the garden through her father, who works at The Merc. She said she had been volunteering at the garden since its opening in 2010, when she was 5.

Maebelle said she’s happy to now be one of the garden employees, learning new skills and helping others.

“It’s been a really good experience to have in my life,” Maebelle said. “It shows the ways different programs, especially agriculture, can affect people’s lives.”

photo by: Dylan Lysen

Maebelle Hamlin plucks weeds from the Growing Food Growing Health garden outside West Middle School on Wednesday, July 8, 2020. Maebelle, who will be a freshman at Lawrence High School in the fall, is the newest member of the team overseeing the garden.

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