About 150 students paid tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday by performing a day of community service that included picking 4,000 pounds of vegetables to feed the hungry.
The effort was one of many tributes in Orange County on the holiday commemorating the birth of the civil rights leader, which included a speech by former Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts at the Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda and a community celebration at the 2nd Baptist Church in Santa Ana.
The student volunteers from Santa Ana Valley High School and UC Irvine spent the morning harvesting enough fresh vegetables at the Incredible Edible Park in Irvine to feed 12,000 people in Orange County, organizers said.
Several students said they were making the national holiday "a day on" rather than a day off from school as urged by the King Center in Atlanta.
"We're just here to honor Martin Luther King and what he taught us. All of us volunteered to do this," said Mariana Granados, 15, a Valley High School sophomore, as she and classmates Susan Rosales, Margarita Reyes and Sayra Venegas cut broccoli stalks.
The produce, which included spinach, celery and carrots, was grown on 6 acres of farmland on Harvard Avenue donated by Southern California Edison, said Sam Caruthers, coordinator for the Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County, which helped organize the event.
Volunteers plant, weed and harvest the cropland, which is irrigated by the city of Irvine.
Last year more than 400,000 pounds was picked by volunteers for the Orange-based food bank at various farms, including fields donated by local farmers.
Their efforts supplied enough food to feed about 1.5 million people, Caruthers said.
On Monday, volunteers hunched over or knelt in muddy soil to cut and dig out vegetables, then carried them in buckets or crates to a waiting panel truck.
Although it was hard and messy work, the young pickers turned it into a celebratory cause.
"This isn't just to feed the hungry and homeless. I wanted to do something to honor Dr. King's life, but I wasn't interested in a parade," said Ron Bullock, 20.
"I came here with my friend and feel that by doing this for even a few hours I'm answering Dr. King's call to help the less-fortunate," said Bullock.
Shaun Hirschl, director of the Volunteer Center of Orange County, said Monday's harvesting project on behalf of the poor "ties in to Dr. King's value of bringing the community together to meet a community need."
This message was not lost on Nathan White, 5, perhaps the youngest volunteer to show up Monday.
Nathan was picking carrots with his parents, who live in Laguna Niguel.
"It's nice to help people," said Nathan. "It makes me happy to pick carrots."