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Lawrence garden projects help youth cultivate their futures, serve community

Amid the lush leaves and neatly arranged rows of plants and trees, the orchard and gardens at West Middle School grow a bounty of food. The smells of clematis and lavender float through the air, and wherever you turn, you’ll see colorful fresh fruit and vegetables. But if you dig a little deeper, you’ll also find the project grows people.

Six students work in the Growing Food Growing Health program, which began in 2010. With the support of the Community Mercantile Education Foundation, community partners, their Merc Co+op coworkers, volunteers and mentors, the teenagers to young adults manage three growing sites across Lawrence. They plant, tend, water, harvest, clean, package and distribute the food they grow to people in need. And at outreach opportunities, they educate and connect with their community. Throughout the process, they learn valuable lessons about the people they serve as well as themselves.

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Elise Gard is in her eighth year of GFGH. She joined the training and development program as a middle schooler at West. She’s now a senior at the University of Kansas majoring in environmental studies and minoring in Spanish, social justice and global international studies. Elise said working for GFGH since the age of 14 had changed her “for the better” in many ways. For one, it helped her quell the anxiety she used to have when talking to strangers.

“Being able to talk about both the project, which I’m really passionate about, and myself, are things I really couldn’t do easily before and it’s something I do weekly now at the markets.”

Her time management leadership skills have received a huge boost, too. In addition to maintaining high GPAs in high school and college, Elise holds a number of other jobs, including small business owner/artist, pet sitting, Monarch Watch, yard work and weeding.

“I know how valuable good, hard work is and because of the garden, I put my everything into the work I do,” Elise said, noting she loves the connection GFGH helps her make with people and the way it feeds her passion for the environment. “Using sustainable growing practices, supporting food justice efforts in our community and giving young kids those opportunities is so important. And while I don’t know exactly what I want to do once I graduate in the spring, as long as I’m helping others … I know I’ll be happy and feel fulfilled.”

Elise’s brother, Alex, joined the program two years after his big sister. He’s now a sophomore at KU majoring in civil engineering and minoring in Spanish. He holds a special talent for growing okra — and possibly an immunity. While some of his coworkers develop red, itchy skin when they get near okra stems or leaves, Alex burrows himself within the 9-foot tall stalks without pause. He also harvests the small, prickly gooseberry patch.

“I guess I’m immune to thorns as well,” Alex joked.

Alex has encountered a fair share of garden pests in his six years with GFGH. He’s faced hornworms, nematodes, rabbits, squirrels and other invaders. But in six years, those challenges have also helped instill values, work ethic, dedication and a desire to help others.

“It’s had a big impact on my life and how it gives back to the community in such a powerful way,” Alex said. “Even if it doesn’t on the surface necessarily seem like it affects my career, I feel like it affects who I am as a person and how I go about life.”

Big garden, big yields

The organic gardens at West, 2700 Harvard Road, span 15,000 square feet. The south plot boasts a 550-foot flourishing sweet potato patch dominated by vines of vibrant green and purple leaves. 

Nancy O’Connor, executive director of the Merc’s education foundation, said the patch should yield a thousand pounds of sweet potatoes. Sometime in October before it frosts, a large crew will dig up thousands of the tubers. In the past, some have earned the moniker “sweet potato baby” because of their enormity, including one that reached 5.75 pounds. She said the 25- to 50-pound special-order boxes they’ll distribute could carry residents in need well into winter. When kept in a dark place away from other foods, the spuds can last six months or more, and they contain a bevy of fiber, vitamins and minerals.

O’Connor’s specialty is nutrition education. She envisioned the garden and helped launch it 11 years ago. The struggle of helping children understand where their food originated sparked the idea during a time when mostly farm kids and 4H club members grew food. Today, Lawrence Public Schools offers a Farm to School program and various garden clubs across the district that provide nutrition education as well as produce for school cafeterias.

“Really, food and health is about everybody,” O’Connor said.

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Providing any maintenance and support necessary — like fixing a faulty sprinkler on Sunday afternoon — alongside O’Connor and the youth is Jim Lewis, project assistant. He and O’Connor’s children and grandchildren have helped at GFGH, too, making the effort multi-generational.

The garden has grown and evolved the last decade, just like the people who work it. Along the way, GFGH has distributed food in several ways — via cafeterias, farmers markets, donations to Just Food and CSA shares, for example. 

Gardens at First Step at Lake View and Edgewood Homes have also been added to the GFGH program in the last three years, providing nutrition education opportunities and more healthy food access to a new crop of community members.

Lewis smiled broadly as he said that all produce is now given away to those who need it most. And giving is what the gardeners have done — in a big way.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic arrived last spring, 6,000 pounds of fresh food have been donated to people in the community who need it most at the Free Market from 4 to 6 p.m. on Wednesdays at Edgewood Homes, 1600 Haskell Ave.

O’Connor describes the market as “intimate” and able to provide easy access for 350 residents. It also attracts seniors from other housing developments like Babcock Place and Clinton Place. Students have long asked for more direct ways to connect with the people who benefit from the food they grow, and this outreach fulfills that wish, she said, in addition to helping address food insecurity.

“There’s a whole lot of nutrition education in an informal, conversational way,” O’Connor said, noting the popularity of the West garden’s big, quirky zucchetta, an Italian summer squash. Customers at the market stroll away with the uniquely shaped vegetable slung over their shoulder or hung like a necklace.

“We’ve created a market over there for it by just being able to explain it to people and they come back the next week and we ask them, ‘How was that? What did you do with it?’” she said.

So successful the Free Market has been, O’Connor said, that GFGH has received a grant to purchase supplemental produce and fresh bread from local producers in order to meet the demand.

And at First Step at Lakeview, a garden project known as Growing Food Growing Hope allows students and their mentors to work with women and their children in a hopeful residential treatment facility setting. Twice a month, they teach a cooking class using food from the First Step garden. Check out GFGH’s Instagram page for a peek at some of their creations.

Elise said it isn’t always about the food. The vibrant flowers in the gardens simply exist to brighten the days of teachers, students and other community members.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic arrived last spring, 6,000 pounds of fresh food have been donated to people in the community who need it most at the Free Market from 4 to 6 p.m. on Wednesdays at Edgewood Homes, 1600 Haskell Ave.

Growing up in the garden

Maebelle Hamlin, 15, meanders through the West garden on Sunday, naming and proudly explaining the garden’s evolution through years and seasons. She notes that all five gardeners working on this day are vegetarians. She points out a variety of peppers, tomatoes and apples, as well as fall crops like lettuce, beans, carrots, chard and collard greens. Also emerging from the soil are towering popcorn stalks, a variety of herbs and tiny sprouts of cover crops like peas for nitrogen replenishment.

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Maebelle has worked in the garden for most of her years. She started as a volunteer at 5 with her family. Now she gets paid to work for GFGH and attends Lawrence High School as a sophomore. She hopes to attend college out of state and work as a journalist or a lawyer someday.

Maebelle said she fell in love with the garden early on and realized she enjoyed working with nature. It helped her relax, especially after a long day in the classroom. “It’s very peaceful,” she said with a grin. “It’s kind of a break in the day.”

“Jim, Nancy and the other gardeners create this wonderful sense of love and respect around our workspace, everyone does their best to make everyone else feel at home in the gardens, and when working in that environment you can’t help but grow individually as a person and as a crew.”

Maebelle made her mark as the first student-gardener outside West Middle School hired into the program. She wants to enjoy her time in GFGH before she graduates from LHS and learn as much as she can from her community and coworkers. “There’ll be people who come up to our table and show us a completely new way to prepare (a food), and that’s just really cool.”

Tricia Masenthin/The Lawrence Times Growing Food Growing Health gardeners Alex Gard, Elise Gard and Maebelle Hamlin take a break for a photo on Sept. 11, 2021.
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— Tricia Masenthin (she/her), reporter, can be reached via email at tmasenthin (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com.

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