BY KELLY BARTH
As a nutrition educator, Nancy O’Connor had worked with children for years. She invented many creative ways to talk about calories and nutrients, such as spooning 10 teaspoons of sugar into a pile to show them how much they were getting in one can of pop.
But she still wasn’t entirely getting through. What could she do, she wondered, to “crack the nut” of children’s disconnect with food? She found just the tool at a sustainable agriculture conference in Des Moines in 2010.
That year, she and the Community Mercantile Education Foundation, a sister organization to The Merc, 901 Iowa St., of which she is executive director, launched the first school garden at West Middle School, 2700 Harvard Road.
“Kids are bombarded with fast food on the landscape. They see it everywhere — it’s a very physical part of their reality,” she says. “Similarly, this garden is part of the landscape now. Since it’s on Crestline (Drive), it’s highly visible to kids, their parents and the community. Our success has been very visible.”
Thus began the school garden nonprofit program, “Growing Food, Growing Health,” which now has gardens at Hillcrest School, 1045 Hilltop Drive, and Sunset Hill School, 901 Schwarz Road, as well. Because the program is sponsored by The Merc, it promises to have lasting success, where a student–parent effort might falter when the students graduate.
Changing minds and habits requires patience and the long view, which is just what O’Connor says this unique business–school district partnership can provide.
Not only do students get to see the gardens in action, the program also provides five select students a job during the growing season, which is roughly April to November. Because it’s a real job — each student gardener makes $1,000 per season — the application process is rigorous.
To be considered, they have to volunteer at a spring work day. They each fill out an application and a self-evaluation of their skills related not only to gardening but also public speaking and their ability to work with others. They also need a teacher reference. Finally, they have to write an essay about why they want the job.
“After this careful screening, we’re left with a small group of smart, self-aware leaders,” says O’Connor. “They care about healthy eating and the environment. Ultimately, many of them have comfortably spoken at state agricultural conferences.”
Everything students learn, they learn by doing with the help of garden coordinator Lily Siebert, who doesn’t assume anything.
“We make sure we tell them, ‘Hey, you have to wash that lettuce’ before they bag it up,” Siebert says.
The student’s hours vary. In the summer they work early morning shifts, and after school in the fall. It depends on what their life looks like.
At the Sunset Hill site, Siebert also teaches a group of sixth-graders who have chosen gardening as an elective. In addition to Siebert and O’Connor, the program has hired local organic grower Dan Phelps to formalize the garden education program at Sunset Hill.
In just three growing seasons, the program has already produced a bountiful harvest. Of the approximately 5,600 pounds of food grown, 1,300 pounds have been prepared and served for lunch by West cafeteria staff, who, along with the principal, Myron Melton, have been very supportive of the project.
The student gardeners also run a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project at the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department for staff of the clinic, Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center and Visiting Nurses Association as part of a Workplace Wellness initiative. All of the proceeds are funneled back into the program, and leftovers are donated to Health Care Access.
“There’s been a really positive response,” says O’Connor. “When it was 105 degrees outside this summer, people could just walk into the lobby and purchase good healthy food rather than have to drive the farmers’ market or grocery store. Each week, someone would say something like, ‘I’ve never prepared beets, turnips, kohlrabi, kale,’ and we were there to educate. Not only do we have a generation of students who will never attend a school without a garden, we have adults introduced to healthy local produce. You can create policy to get people to eat, but unless you’re on the ground with them, talking to them, showing them real food, change won’t happen.”
The program can always use interested volunteers. “Growing Food, Growing Growers” is hosting a work day from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at West Middle School. To volunteer, email email@example.com.
The public is invited to the annual summer tour of the Kansas University Native Medicinal Plant Research Garden at 10 a.m. Saturday.
Kelly Kindscher, a professor of environmental studies, will lead the tour. The garden is at 1865 E. 1600 Road, about 10 minutes north of downtown Lawrence and adjacent to Prairie Moon Waldorf School.
The medicinal garden is connected with the KU Native Medicinal Plant Research Program, a collaboration between botany and medicinal chemistry. KU announced in March that, through the program’s research, 14 new natural chemical compounds had been discovered in Physalis longifolia, the wild tomatillo, that showed significant anti-cancer properties in preclinical testing.
Features of the garden include:
• Research plantings. This 50-by-260-foot space includes large beds of 25 species of native plants, including wild tomatillo, echinacea, yarrow, wild mint, stinging nettle and others.
• Demonstration garden. This 70-by-80-foot garden is thriving in its second year of growth and includes six different themed beds of medicinal plants.
• KU student farm. Conceived by KU students in 2010 through a class project, this community garden includes more than 50 individual plots maintained by more than 100 KU students, faculty and staff for growing food.
Last year’s summer garden tour drew more than 85 attendees.
For more information, visit nativeplants.ku.edu.
On Saturday’s Lawrence Food Garden Tour, you’ll find three of the 21 featured gardens clustered at Delaware Street Commons.
There’s the cohousing project’s community garden, a large square plot everyone shares. There’s Tina Haladay’s front-yard-turned-food-garden, where the landscaped array even includes goji berries.
And then there’s Kirk Devine’s garden, which is, well, different.
First of all, it’s in a resident’s basement. Second, it has no dirt.
And there’s another thing.
Devine’s garden is fueled by a barrel of goldfish.
“It’s revolutionary,” he said.
The “Fish in a Barrel Garden” concept is a sustainable loop where waste from the fish is put to use nourishing vegetables, in this case a crop of artisan lettuce.
Devine’s “barrelponics” contraption features three 55-gallon barrels, one for fish and two for lettuce. About once an hour, a pump in the fish barrel draws water up to the lettuce, planted in pea gravel. The water, filled with nutrients from the fish waste, provides all the nutrients the plants need.
“They’re getting, like, room-service feeding every hour,” Devine said.
Devine adds only light — long bulbs suspended over each bed of lettuce — and basic fish food. The water, naturally cleaned as it filters through the plant beds, is recycled.
Devine, who gardened outdoors first, said he was constantly fighting pests or the weather. With barrelponics, he said, “you’ve really got the traditional farming dilemmas on the run.”
After attending a three-day training seminar about the gardening method, he set up a system in his basement around Christmas. A few months ago, he set up the system featured on the garden tour in the basement of Judy Metcalf, 1218 Del., No. 2.
Devine said such a system costs between $250 and $350 to set up. Energy use is low.
“The payback in salads can occur within a year,” he said.
A few doors down at 1224 Del., Haladay’s “Gratitude Garden” is more traditional but experimental in its own way.
After storms damaged a large tree, Haladay tore it out. She then set about turning her newly sunny front yard into a food garden.
She layered up cardboard, mulch paths, then manure, grass, leaves and compost to create soil for raised garden beds.
She planted her favorite greens, tossing out mixed seeds by the handful. She planted blueberry bushes that, thanks to acidity created by pine needles added to the soil around them, actually have berries on them. She has herbs including stevia, fennel and lemon balm.
There’s also snow peas, carrots, turnips, tomatoes and potatoes, plus black raspberries, goji berries and even two kiwi plants, still small but on the up and up.
“I just go for it,” Haladay said. “Whether it’s going to make it or not … we’ll just see what works.”
Haladay’s own children enjoy picking and eating fruit and vegetables straight from the yard, and she said she tries to share with other neighbors, too.
The community garden idea seems to fit the mindset at Delaware Street Commons, where the main community garden at 818 East 13th St. is flanked by a fire pit and tree-trunk seating.
“It’s kind of an old-fashioned neighborhood where everybody knows everybody,” Haladay said.
Tour coordinator Caryl Hale said most of the gardens on this year’s Lawrence Food Garden Tour are new.
The event, now in its fourth year, aims to show what can be grown inside the city limits.
“There’s several farm tours, but there’s just a growing interest in urban gardening or urban farming, and this is a way that we can do that here in Lawrence,” Hale said. “And for the gardeners … it’s just a great way to share and exchange knowledge.”
Take the tour, see ‘Fresh!’ the movie
The Lawrence Food Garden Tour is Saturday, June 2. (In case of rain, the tour will be rescheduled for Sunday.)
There’s also a new kickoff event Thursday night, featuring a screening of the award-winning documentary film “Fresh” at 7 p.m. at Liberty Hall, 644 Mass. Admission is $5.
In addition to the film — which explores the farmers and businesspeople exploring healthy, sustainable alternatives to the industrial food model — the event will feature presentations and resources on local food.
There will be food to eat, too, with the Blissful Bite organic food truck serving up organic fare outside.
Farmers, faith leaders and food activists will discuss the religious aspects of agriculture during a conference April 28 at Ecumenical Campus Ministries, 1204 Oread Ave.
The event, “Sowing and Reaping: Christian Perspectives on Food and Agriculture,” will be from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and will feature 16 speakers. It is open to the public.
Among the speakers and their topics:
• Local farmers Phil Holman-Hebert and Bart and Margit Hall — forging intimacy through soil and farming as ministry.
• Community organizers Rachel Jefferson, Linda Quinn and Rachel Myslivy — social justice components of food access and urban agriculture.
• Kansas Farmers Union President Donn Teske — moral implications of the Farm Bill.
• Christina Holt, director of the Lawrence Hunger Project, and Just Food executive director Jeremy Farmer — individual responsibility to global and local hunger.
• The Revs. Thad Holcombe and Gary Teske — raising and sharing food with gratitude.
“We are coming together in community for a thoughtful, heartfelt discussion about the sacred aspects of food and agriculture. As evidenced by the extraordinary work done on hunger and on behalf of farmworkers’ rights, faith is a powerful motivator for engagement and change.”
— Kansas University professor Simran Sethi, event organizer
Lunch will be available on a sliding scale fee ranging from $5 to $15. To reserve a meal, call ECM at 843-4933.
For more information about the conference, visit its Facebook page at http://ljw.bz/HLoa4X.
About two dozen garden enthusiasts gathered Friday near John Taylor Park in north Lawrence to break ground on the City of Lawrence’s Common Ground program.
“This is a great day,” Vice Mayor Bob Schumm said while holding a shovel to help plant the first potato. “It’s a labor of love for me. There’s nothing like fresh food out of your garden.”
The Common Ground program allows nonprofit organizations and community groups to lease city-owned properties that are vacant or under utilized for growing fruit and vegetables for sale or donation.
In its inaugural year, the program features five garden sites:
• Seventh and Walnut streets near John Taylor Park. This features a children’s discovery garden that Ballard Community Center will help with and a community garden where residents can rent plots. About one-third of the plot also will be used by local farmers.
• 1304 and 1315 Pa. These plots will be community gardens where residents can rent a small or large plot.
• 13th and Garfield streets near the Burroughs Creek Trail. This will be a community orchard that will have fruit trees and bushes. The community will be able to pick fruit once it grows, but it may be two to three years.
• Eighth and Oak streets. This is a collaborative project involving Mellowfields Urban Farm, Johnson County Community College agriculture students and Lawrence students involved in the Growing Food, Growing Health project at West Middle School. The students will be getting hands-on education and growing food for their schools and food pantries.
Eileen Horn, sustainability coordinator for the city and Douglas County, said she’s thrilled with the diversity of the gardens, which will all begin planting soon. She especially likes the collaborative education project at Eighth and Oak.
“I love that one because it’s professional farmers teaching college students who are studying to be farmers who are mentoring high school students and middle schoolers who might want to do that someday,” she said.
She said the food that’s grown will be used in a variety of places: school cafeterias, children’s snack programs, food pantries and farmers’ markets. Some will be picked and eaten right on the spot.
Horn said the goal is make local produce more accessible. “We need to figure out how to get healthy, local food into the hands of everybody in our community,” she said.
The plan is to expand the program in years to come. “This is just the beginning,” Schumm said, adding what’s not to like about it. “It’s healthy. It’s just good for everyone.”
If you are interested in renting a plot near John Taylor Park, contact Aimee Polson at 331-5959. If you would like to rent a plot in one of the Pennsylvania sites, contact Michael Morley at 218-5061.
Spring is just a couple of weeks away and if you're like me, you can hardly wait to start planting flowers and a vegetable garden. As you're planning for the season, you will want to mark your calendar for a few city programs that not only will help your plants flourish, but will save you money. They are:
• Friday, March 23 — 8 a.m.-3 p.m.
• Saturday, March 24 — 8 a.m.-4 p.m.
Where: Wood Recovery and Composting facility, 1420 E. 11th St.
The cost is $10 (cash only) per truck load and will be more for larger trucks or trailers. If you load the compost yourself, there is no charge. Bring shovels and buckets if you plan to load your own.
The compost is made from the weekly curbside collection of residential yard trimmings, which includes grass, leaves, garden prunings, and small woody waste. Due to the length of the composting process and the biological changes that occur, 99 percent of all chemicals have dissipated prior to public distribution. City staff tests the compost for levels of ammonia and carbon dioxide; tests are also completed for pH and salinity.
Compost is a fertilizer, and is meant to be mixed into the soil. For food gardens, it is recommended to add up to 1 1/2 inches of compost to every 6 inches depth of tilled soil. Do not plant in 100 percent compost.
The compost sale will close early if the supply is depleted.
• Thursday, April 12 — 8 a.m.-3 p.m.
• Friday, April 13 — 8 a.m.-3 p.m.
• Saturday, April 14 — 8 a.m.-4 p.m.
Where: Wood Recovery and Composting facility, 1420 E. 11th St.
Cost is $10 per pick up load; the price will be more for larger trucks. Patrons are asked to bring a tarp for their pickup to secure woodchips, preventing woodchips from littering the roadway when leaving the facility.
Woodchips, like mulch, are helpful when it comes to the growth of newly-planted trees, when used in gardens or used in flower gardens. Spreading woodchips reduces the amount of water lost through evaporation, prevents excess run-off, restricts weed growth, and replaces valuable nutrients into the soil.
The woodchips the city sells are made from tree materials brought in from both residential and commercial sources. The Lawrence Parks and Recreation Department doesn’t purchase mulch, instead it recycles trees that are cut down throughout the city. The trees are then run through a chipper and used as mulch.
The woodchip sale will close early if the supply is depleted.
For more information about the compost or woodchip sale, visit www.LawrenceRecycles.org for more information.
RAIN BARREL WORKSHOP
When: Thursday, April 19 — 2 p.m.-4 p.m.
Where: Douglas County 4-H Fairgrounds, 2110 Harper St., Building 1.
• Deadline to register is April 17 and can be done by calling 832-3136 or visiting www.lawrenceks.org/public_works/stormwater/rain_barrel_workshop.
A rain barrel collects and stores rainwater from your rooftop for use in your yard or garden. Water collected in a rain barrel would normally flow through your downspout, onto a paved surface and eventually into a storm drain. You can use water from your rain barrel to fill bird baths, water indoor, garden or container plants and clean garden tools. Rainwater is naturally soft and contains no minerals and chemicals and when used for watering plants, rainwater will leave no calcium carbonate residue. Rain barrels help lower water costs.
It is estimated that 40 percent of water used during summer is for lawn and garden maintenance. Rain barrels reduce stormwater runoff resulting in fewer pollutants in our storm water and less potential for localized flooding.
During the class, you can choose to either make a rain barrel at the class and take it home with you for a $35 materials fee or you can come and observe the workshop free of charge and take home the informational material to make a rain barrel at home with products you have already.
Extension staff, volunteers and community partners are invited to attend workshops to learn how to plan, develop and sustain community gardens. Representatives from community gardens will be on hand to share information about their gardens, and we'll tour two gardens near each of the workshop sites. Come and find out more about community gardens and how they can be an asset for your community.
Workshop dates are May 23 (Hutchinson), May 24 (Manhattan), and May 26 (Iola). For registration information, visit the Community Garden Workshops on the Kansas 4H site. The registration deadline is May 18.
The West Junior High School garden sprouted in March out of a grassy area on the east side of the school into one flourishing with flowers, herbs and vegetables.
“It’s now huge and awesome,” said Chloe Gilligan, 14, one of six students hired to work in the garden this summer.
The students said they’ve grown with it.
“I have learned so much. It’s crazy,” said Maddie Williams, 14. “I didn’t know what anything was. I didn’t know what to do, and now I can say that’s the Rudbeckia plant, and yeah, ‘You can pull it out of the ground like this.’ So, it’s really cool.”
Chloe said taking care of the garden hasn’t been easy.
“The infamous squash moth infested our squash and they had an outbreak, so I was very busy cleaning the leaves and squishing squash bugs today,” she said. “We don’t use any pesticides, so we have to be more creative and come up with other stuff. Like, we planted marigolds to prevent bunnies from eating our stuff.”
But, the students said the hard work — planting, weeding, watering and harvesting — has paid off.
“My favorites are probably the cherry tomatoes. They are delicious,” Maddie said.
Chloe said carrots and cucumbers are her favorites, but she got adventurous.
“I ate some beet greens before we had beets, and I think I took a bite out of a raw beet,” she said.
The students had their first farmers’ market July 12. They’ve had two markets every week since, and they’ve all been sell-outs.
The students have raised $1,700 from produce and other products like T-shirts, and all of the money goes back into the garden, which is part of the “Growing Food, Growing West” project.
Nancy O’Connor, project coordinator, said they plan to use tomatoes and other produce from the garden in the cafeteria on Aug. 12, the first day of school.
“I have to remind myself that this garden a year ago, wasn’t even an idea. That this just has happened since March, and the community has just picked it up and embraced it,” she said.
O’Connor said the six students — Chloe, Maddie, T.J. Everett, Abbey Ladner, Gillian Marsh and Karen Schneck — will continue to work in the garden until the first hard freeze, and then they will prepare it for spring. The project also has had a permanent student volunteer, Colin Dietz.
O'Connor is hoping a few of the students will serve as mentors next year.
Chloe and Maddie both said they would like to be involved again.
“I really like harvesting,” Maddie said. “It’s really fun to see how much and how big things have gotten since we started when they were just little seeds.”
O’Connor said several plans regarding the project are in the works:
• There will be a community dinner in September to benefit the project. Students will talk about their experiences.
• It is partnering with Sunset Hill School, and potentially another elementary school.
• They would like to plant an auxiliary garden to serve food pantries in the community.
“It’s kind of an amazing project because there are so many components,” O’Connor said.
There will be a special farmers’ market on Aug. 12 — the first full day of school — at West Junior High School, 2700 Harvard Road.
The market, which will be open from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., will feature live music, refreshments and tours of the garden.
The event is open to anyone.
The market also will be open from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Aug. 5 and Aug. 9. After Aug. 12, the market will be held on Thursdays from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.
Eleven-year-old Tish Old picked a handful of tomatoes Tuesday morning from the garden at the Boys and Girls Club of Lawrence.
“Oh, yes. I found some,” she said enthusiastically.
About 40 minutes later, she put on gloves and squeezed the tomatoes in a bowl for a pizza sauce that included other items from the garden: basil, oregano, parsley, onions and peppers.
“I am having so much fun,” she said.
Tish was among 25 fifth- and sixth-grade students who picked produce and then chopped, diced and squished it for the sauce. They were guided by Lily Siebert and Vera Long, education outreach assistants with The Community Mercantile.
Cutting the onions was the hardest part for most students, including Jasmine Cook, 12.
“It hurts,” she said.
She preferred tearing the basil leaves from their stems and then chopping them.
Sitting next to Jasmine was Taixa Hiatt, 11, who was cutting green peppers.
The students have been involved with the Pizza Garden project at the Boys and Girls Club, 1520 Haskell Ave., since April. They helped plant the garden and then tended to it. They also are selling produce Tuesdays at the Lawrence Farmers’ Market.
On Tuesday, they got to taste the fruits of their labor: homemade pizza sauce.
The Pizza Garden was started last year by art teacher Margaret Hennessey Springe, who wanted children to be involved in an outdoor project.
“I kept thinking that they really needed to get in touch with the earth. They need to do some physical labor, and they need to see something from start to finish,” she said.
Janet Murphy, Boys and Girls Club executive director, said the garden is part of its new Triple Play program, a health initiative that was partly funded with a $10,000 grant from LiveWell Lawrence.
The program has three components: physical activity, nutritious foods and a healthy mind. The club serves about 1,200 children during the school year and about 500 during the summer.
Murphy said the club is providing more programs that involve physical activity, such as soccer. The club also is serving more fruits and vegetables, and teaching students how to grow their own food.
“The kids, when you see them first come in and you see them with the plants or digging up the ground, it’s like, ‘Do we really have to do this?’” Murphy said. “But then, as they see the fruits and vegetables grow and they get to pick those and they get to see how those are prepared, to actually make a tomato sauce for a pizza, they get really excited about it.”
The pizza sauce will be used Tuesday for the club’s first Pizza Garden Cafe. Proceeds will help fund the garden next year.
Pizza garden project
The Boys and Girls Club of Lawrence is having its first Pizza Garden Cafe Tuesday, July 27, at the club, 1520 Haskell Ave.
The students will be serving from 11 a.m. to 11:45 a.m., and from noon to 12:45 p.m. For $5, you get a slice of pizza, salad, drink and dessert. The money goes back into the club’s Pizza Garden project.
Reservations are not required, but encouraged. To make a reservation, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
First lady Michelle Obama will be in Kansas City in 12 DAYS to address the national convention of the NAACP.
The organization announced Tuesday that Obama is scheduled to speak Monday, July 12, on childhood obesity and her "Let's Move! Campaign," which promotes a healthier generation of children.
To help entice the first lady to Lawrence, post your support for the movement in the comment section below this story. Also, spread the word by sharing this story on Twitter and Facebook.
Let's see if we can make a difference and shine a healthy, national spotlight on Lawrence.
West Junior High School students will begin having weekly farmers’ markets July 12.
The markets will be from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays and Thursdays, through at least Aug. 12. The markets will be in front of the school, 2700 Harvard Road, and open to anyone.
Among the items for sale at the first market: basil, beets, summer squash, onions, and flower bouquets. There also will be T-shirts, bags, and Rollie Prairie cookbooks by Nancy O’Connor, who oversees the garden project.
Proceeds will go right back into the school garden, to help make it sustainable for years to come.
What’s unique about the garden is the student involvement. Six students have been hired to plant and maintain the garden. They also will pick, wash, weigh, and price produce for the weekly markets, and then operate the markets.
These are just a few of the hands-ons skills the students are learning through “Growing Food, Growing West” project, which includes the school garden.
I stopped by West Junior High School on Thursday afternoon to check out the approximately 3,500-square-foot garden area. I hadn't seen it since May 12. It has GROWN. There are lots of vegetables coming up and flowers in bloom.
The garden is part of the "Growing Food, Growing West" project that involves students, businesses, and the community.
Next week, a fence will be put up around the garden.
The transformation from a grassy area to a garden has been fun to watch:
This post was written by Lauren Cunningham as part of Simran Sethi's KU journalism course "Media and the Environment," which focuses on environmental reporting through the lenses of food and agriculture.
Coming from Clyde, Kan., my mom has always told me some interesting tales about her time spent on farms.
From cleaning chickens to helping deliver calves, I’ve heard my share of, and have been a bit grossed out by, these stories. But I recently asked my mom more about farming in our family.
I had always just assumed my mom grew up on a farm, but she explained that it was a little bit different than that. They had a small number of chickens and had a vegetable garden (which sounds like a farm to me), but they didn’t have any crops. My grandparents, my mom and my uncles also helped other farms in their community regularly. My grandpa helped process chickens for local farms — I’m not quite sure if I want to know what that means — while my mom said that she would help gather eggs or clean chickens.
She said she also thought my grandpa liked to garden as a way of therapy from this job at Northern Natural Gas where he would work in extremely hot and stressful environments. I think it’s interesting that even today growing food is still proven to be therapeutic.
Between my grandpa’s gardening and hunting and my grandma’s canning and baking, my mom said their family was pretty self-sufficient. Looking back she said she realizes how much cheaper and healthier that way of living was, but at the time, she said it’s just what they did.
“That’s just what we did,” — she says this a lot when she talks about her farming experiences. I think that because farming becomes such a tradition and a way of life for some families, no one really questions how healthy or sustainable it is to grow food for a family. It really just becomes second-nature for some families to decide to farm.
Since I can remember, my grandpa has always grown some sort of vegetable, usually tomatoes or potatoes. He still grows vegetables even though he and my grandma don’t live in a farming community anymore. My mom can no longer eat a store-bought tomato because she says it doesn’t taste right, and I’m beginning to be the same way. Veggies that Grandpa grows taste way better than anything I’ve ever bought.
My mom still has some farmland in Concordia, too. She has 360 acres of rotating crops of soybeans, milo or wheat. She told me that she is never going to sell it.
Like she always tells me, “Farmers never really retire.”
What began as a seed — or idea — to have a school garden at West Junior High School has grown into a multifaceted project.
It’s now about much more than maintaining a 4,000-foot-square garden.
The project includes:
• hiring six WJHS students to not only work in the garden, but also to do presentations about the garden, document the process and do taste testings in the commons area.
• selling the produce in weekly markets at the school.
• using the produce in the cafeteria.
• incorporating the garden project into classes, such as business, health, writing, photography and art.
“It’s going to be fun because it’s going to be such a visual project. It will be something that the neighborhood can see and the kids can see and be proud of,” said Vickie Lowe, health teacher. Lowe has worked for years with Nancy O’Connor, nutrition educator and outreach coordinator at The Community Mercantile, and executive director of The Community Mercantile Education Foundation.
It was O’Connor who planted the seed for the project after attending an agriculture conference last fall in Des Moines. She said everyone was talking about planting school gardens.
“I really wanted to take that next step,” she said.
This spring, the project "Growing Food, Growing West" has taken root with the help of donations and grants. It received a $12,000 grant from the Douglas County Community Foundation’s LiveWell initiative. The Merc has contributed $6,000. O'Connor estimates the project will cost $20,000.
Two part-time garden coordinators — Dan Phelps and Diane Wilson — were hired to map and plan the garden, which will be on the east side of the school along Crestline Drive. Both have impressive résumés in horticulture and have their own gardens.
Wilson, of Lecompton, previously was director of grounds at Montpelier, the estate of James Madison in Virginia.
Phelps, Lawrence, worked with a group called Girls 2000 in inner-city San Francisco. He helped eight girls grow a garden and sell produce where there was no other fresh produce for miles.
“It was real meaningful work,” he said.
Phelps hopes the “Growing Food, Growing West” project is the first of many school gardens in Lawrence, and he’s happy to take part in it.
“I love working with kids and I love gardening, so this is a great opportunity,” he said.
The garden coordinators and O’Connor, project coordinator, have their work cut out for them.
During a meeting Tuesday, they were going over seed and plant donations from area businesses and growers, plans for fencing, needs for tools, schedules for garden work, and a grant application to get carts and wheelbarrows. They also talked about having a logo contest and T-shirts.
“Sometimes I feel like my head is going to explode because there are so many ideas. There’s just lots of layers to it.”
— Nancy O'Connor, project coordinator
So far, the soil has been tested, half of the compost spread and the ground tilled. They hope to have the students hired in April. A community Volunteer Day will be on April 11 for digging beds, adding compost, putting down mulch in pathways and setting up an irrigation system, among other tasks.
O’Connor said the key to this garden is that it will be sustainable.
“Some school gardens languish in the summer, but ours is going to be very strong in the summer,” she said. “If we did this at an elementary school, it would be adults doing it for kids, and what we want here is kids doing it for kids. Kids turning kids on to what they are doing.”
The six students will earn $7.25 an hour and work about five hours a week for 24 weeks, O’Connor said.
“They will have an experience that other junior high students won’t,” she said.
Zach Batterman, a seventh-grader, said he plans to apply for the job.
“It’s a job and it gives me something to do, and you get paid,” he said.
Batterman said he has helped his parents plant tomatoes, peas and carrots. He likes to watch the tomatoes grow, but would rather eat the carrots and peas.
He’s in luck because carrots and peas will be among the items planted in the garden. There also will be tomatoes, radishes, green beans, peppers, onions, beets, spinach, flowers, herbs, and more.
“Horticulture is therapeutic. I think it’s really empowering for the kids to know how to plant, market and sell their food.”
— Diane Wilson, garden coordinator
To help finance the garden for years to come, profits will be put into a bank account. O’Connor also plans to invite the community to a fundraising feast in the fall that will feature foods from the garden.
“We want this to be successful on lots of levels,” O’Connor said. “We don’t want it to be a one-time project. We want it to be the start of something different.”
She said some community leaders have even suggested asking First Lady Michelle Obama to visit the project. Obama launched a national initiative “Let’s Move” in February to combat childhood obesity.
“It’s keeping me up at night because it really is big,” O’Connor said.
WANT TO HELP?
Project organizers need community volunteers to help dig beds, add compost and put down mulch in pathways, among other tasks.
The Volunteer Day will begin at 1 p.m. Sunday, April 11, at West Junior High School, 2700 Harvard Road. The rain date is April 18.
If you are interested in helping on Volunteer Day or with the project, contact O’Connor by e-mail at email@example.com.