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Students put their salad days to good use at vegetable garden

Young planters till the soil for Urban Farming, a nonprofit that gives produce to food banks.

February 11, 2007|Martha Groves | Times Staff Writer

Seventh-grader Melina Resto was far from thrilled at the prospect of spending her Saturday planting lettuce, sweet golden bell peppers and red cabbage at the Veterans' Garden on the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs campus.

But by the time she and dozens of other student volunteers had poked several flats of seedlings into neat rows in a vegetable patch, she decided that the experience was actually pretty cool. "I'm kind of glad to be here now," said Melina, 12, of Silver Lake, crouching to straighten a tender bit of Swiss chard.

The occasion was a midday planting organized by Urban Farming, a nonprofit organization founded in 2005 with the lofty aim of eradicating hunger by planting food crops on unused land in urban areas.

Started in Detroit, the group has helped launch gardens at schools in Los Angeles, New York, Minneapolis and Montego Bay, Jamaica, that provide healthful snacks and help teach students about gardening and nutrition. Schools donate a percentage of their harvests to local food banks.

In St. Louis, the organization has worked with the Rams professional football team to plant an "edible" rooftop garden in the shape of a football field at America's Center, the convention complex that includes the stadium where the team plays. The group also encourages corporations to include food when landscaping office buildings and campuses. And it seeks to enhance a sense of community by bringing together volunteers young and old.

So far, Urban Farming has distributed five tons of produce to food banks in the cities where it operates.

"It has grown a lot quicker than I thought," said Taja Sevelle, a singer and songwriter who founded Urban Farming in Detroit after realizing that acres of vacant land could be cultivated to help ease hunger among the city's poor.

Last April, Joyce Lapinsky, a friend of Sevelle who is Urban Farming's program development consultant, met with the Westside Food Bank. The Veterans' Garden, a horticultural therapy program for veterans with physical or mental disabilities, had made a portion of its 15 acres available to the food bank, which distributes to shelters, meal programs and food pantries in western Los Angeles County. Urban Farming agreed to coordinate the planting and care of a vegetable garden.

Lapinsky enlisted Eileen Duncan, a volunteer who works with a master gardening program through the UC Extension program, to find young planters. Duncan's e-mail campaign drew about 50 students and teachers from the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies, Westchester High School and a Boy Scout troop. Parent volunteers were enlisted to ferry some of the students from Westchester when a bus failed to show up. The volunteers arrived bearing gardening gloves and went to work under sunny skies.

The timing is ideal for a program such as Urban Farming, Duncan said, with the current "emphasis on improving student nutrition and the large homeless population."

For Chrischelle Hawkins, 17, a senior at Westchester High, the experience was a first. "I've never done gardening," she said. "It was fun."

In addition to feeling good about helping the community, the student volunteers got a bonus. Rapper TI showed up unannounced to thank them. "It's a pleasure, for real," he told the star-struck teens as they fired up cellphone cameras to capture images as he posed with them and strolled the garden patch.

TI's appearance was courtesy of Atlantic Records, an Urban Farming sponsor. Craig Kallman, the record company's chief executive, presented the group with $25,000. Also appearing was actor-comedian Richard Lewis, Lapinsky's husband.

Other supporters include Starbucks and Whole Foods Market. Among the Los Angeles institutions with Urban Farming gardens are the Brentwood Science Magnet School, Chabad Israel Center of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Leadership Academy and the Accelerated School. The group also hopes to start a green science garden at the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies.

For Bruce Rosen, president of the Westside Food Bank and Friends of the Vets' Garden, a nonprofit group that supports the veterans' therapy, the event offered a sense of hope.

"Magical, healing things can happen in a garden," he said.


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