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Volunteers harvest produce to supplement hot lunches

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Courtesy of Jessica Speiser
Living Classroom volunteers have been repurposing school gardens to provide fresh produce for students receiving free meals during the pandemic.

It started with hens, explained Suzanne Kasso, who works as a substitute teacher in the Los Altos School District.

While on a weekly town hall meeting call with the district superintendent, Kasso learned that the number of students collecting hot lunch from the three distribution sites in Los Altos had more than doubled since shelter-in-place orders forced schools to close.

“We have four hens and no one in my house really eats eggs,” said Kasso, who donated her eggs to the hot lunch program. “There are kids that are hungry, so I thought, ‘There has to be a way we can donate the extra eggs to kids that need it.’”

While brainstorming other ways to help, Kasso, who also serves as garden manager for the Living Classroom program, determined that the now-unattended planters were a great opportunity to supplement the hot lunch program, which no longer requires proof of a federal free lunch eligibility, with community-planted and -harvested produce.

“Living Classroom has extra produce in the gardens right now because we don’t have kids in the classroom,” Kasso said. “So what we would normally be pulling out of the gardens and using for our lessons as tastings, we’re no longer doing that. I asked if I could I pull out our excess produce and get it to these kids and hand it out as part of our hot lunch distribution.”

Living Classroom, active in nine Los Altos School District schools, teaches students the importance of nature through hands-on gardening lessons. In the class, students learn to germinate plant seeds and harvest vegetables.

Harvesting volunteers

While Kasso and Jessica Speiser, member of the district board of trustees, collaborated to roll out a volunteer program, Kasso spent the past few weeks tending to and harvesting the winter crops originally planted by Living Classroom students at the different schools.

Speiser and Kasso shared the program in mid-May via Parent Teacher Association groups, Nextdoor posts and word of mouth. Most of the volunteers are directly associated with district schools, according to Speiser.

Each school is home to anywhere between 10 and 20 garden beds. Depending on volunteers’ experience and time, they can choose to adopt a bed or a group of beds to maintain. Kasso provided volunteers with a variety of seeds from tomatoes to beans and peppers to sow in their planters.

The 4-foot-by-8-foot beds become the respective volunteers’ responsibility, and they must bring their own tools and wear face masks when tending to their plants to comply with COVID-19 guidelines. Given the size of the beds, maintaining social distancing has been fairly easy, Kasso noted.

“A lot of families are biking over every night after dinner or doing their family walk, just walking by their garden and giving a little bit of water or pulling out a weed or two,” she said.

Abundant crop

Emily Harris walks to Covington School every other day to check on the two planters she adopted. She filled them with some quicker-growing plants such as radishes and beans.

She is using the opportunity to carry on the Living Classroom mission and educate her 8-year-old daughter about the importance of gardening and giving back.

“Something I talk to my daughter about is the powerful visual of the energy inside these seeds,” Harris said. “All we have to do is give it the light, the soil and the water that it needs and it does the rest. It does the hard part.”

Because not all 10 of the garden boxes at Covington were claimed, Harris is pitching in to help maintain the unclaimed beds as well by watering plants and picking weeds where needed.

“This is something that I felt compelled to do because I could use my hands to make a difference for other people in a very obvious, socially distanced, quarantined and so very impactful way,” Harris said.

During the weekly cycle, volunteers harvest produce on Mondays and drop it off at the Covington multipurpose center. Another set of volunteers clean the produce using a three-wash technique and place it in the refrigerator for a third set of volunteers to transport it to distribution centers on Tuesday mornings. This ensures that families are receiving the freshest produce possible to accompany their hot lunch.

The hot lunch program alone provides enough food for one meal a day, but with the additional produce, Speiser hopes that the families will have more meals covered.

“We want to make sure that our most underserved families in our district are served, that we are keeping as many kids and families in our district food secure,” she said.

Volunteers planted more than 100 seeds just a few weeks ago and as plants start to sprout, Kasso looks forward to an abundant yield.

“I’ve told families, even if it’s one or two tomatoes, pick them,” she said. “Because collectively at all the different sites and all the different garden beds, if everyone brings in five cherry tomatoes, suddenly you’ve got a lot of cherry tomatoes and you have enough to feed a family or two or three.”

To volunteer or to donate produce and nonperishables, visit bit.ly/3e4r9wt.

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