Nourishing Hero: Kelly Masini’s School Garden Inspires a Community

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This is the second installment in our Nourishing Heroes series, in which we feature the individuals and organizations who inspire us with food that nourishes body, soul and planet. Do you know a Nourishing Hero we should feature on NOURISH Evolution? Let us know who inspires you!

Students, parents and teachers are returning to school, where they’ll reunite with friends, catch up with colleagues and notice small tweaks like a fresh coat of paint or a new tetherball pole.

At Noddin Elementary School in San Jose, Calif., they’ll notice something else: raised garden beds heavy with ripe zucchini, tomatoes, Swiss chard and eggplant, which they helped plant three months ago.  Over the summer, the planters have yielded an astonishing 785 pounds (and counting) of produce for the local Second Harvest Food Bank.

Kelly Masini, a San Jose mother of two, spearheaded the wildly successful initiative and galvanized the entire school community to take part. I’ve worked with Kelly for several years on our district’s Wellness Committee. She’s engaged and clear-spoken, but not a bulldog. Given the glacial pace with which schools sometimes effect change–due to bureaucratic wrangling, politics or struggling finances–a project like this could have easily fallen off the rails. Kelly kept it on track.

“My mom always had some type of vegetable in the ground during the summers,” Kelly recalls. She planted her first vegetable garden in her mid-20s and after giving birth to her older son Alex, now 9, she joined the Master Gardener program through the University of California Extension.

Fast forward several years to last spring, when Kelly and fellow parent volunteers Tamiko House and Jennie Reynolds discussed adding new planting boxes to the five already present on school grounds. House and Reynolds obtained grant funding from the City of San Jose, and soon 10 boxes were in place, along with a simple irrigation system.

At this point, Kelly realized leaving 10 beds dormant during the year’s most productive season–summer–made little sense, and so she proposed an idea.

“As a Master Gardener,” she says, “I’d become familiar with Plant a Row for the Hungry.” The program encourages home gardeners to plant an extra row of seeds and donate the resulting harvest to the needy. Kelly expanded this concept by getting students, teachers and parents to plant all 10 beds on a single afternoon, planning to donate the entire summer harvest to the food bank.

After facing a few bureaucratic hurdles from the school district, she was finally green-lighted thanks, in part, to support from a green-thumbed school board advocate.  She verified that the food bank could accept the produce, and then headed out to procure plants.  Ace Hardware and SummerWinds Nursery, two local gardening centers, donated over 300 plants. (Most were past-prime “seconds,” which she nurtured back to health before planting.)

On a glorious May afternoon, kindergartners through fifth graders put those plants in the ground, and each Friday throughout the summer a small cadre of dedicated parent volunteers and children weeded, tended, harvested and drove the vegetables to the food bank. The list of donated vegetables is impressive: zucchini, crookneck squash, Japanese eggplant, cayenne peppers, bell peppers, jalapenos, three kinds of beans, several varieties of tomatoes, two types of radishes, Swiss chard and carrots.

“Kelly stepped in at just the right time with a viable community solution to end hunger,” says Poppy Pembroke, the food bank’s communications manager. “Not only is Kelly’s impact visible in the poundage that Noddin produces, but her role as a community leader is inspiring countless others to step up and share their harvests with our neighbors in need.”

Indeed, Kelly reports that one of her summer high-school volunteers at Noddin wants to launch a similar program at his school.

With the start of the school year, the newly planted winter crops–pumpkins, spaghetti and winter squash–will most likely be slated for classroom use, says Kelly. “I’m planning to do summer crops

[for the food bank] next year, though.

“This could have been an epic fail,” she reflects, “but I just went for it. It just seemed like the right thing to do.”

The lucky recipients of Noddin’s summer bounty would likely agree.

Cheryl Sternman Rule is a food and nutrition writer whose work has appeared in numerous national magazines, including EatingWell and Body+Soul. She is the voice behind the food blog 5 Second Rule.

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2017-05-19T00:19:58+00:00