Waukegan school greenhouse reaps 126 pounds of produce for local food pantry
Lake County News-Sun. Yadira Sanchez Olson. May 23, 2017.

Showing tiny bits of spinach on his front two teeth, 8-year-old Daniel Leninger smiled Tuesday and said it felt good to be helping families access fresh produce.

Daniel was part of a group of fourth-graders who harvested more than 126 pounds of vegetables that were grown at the Andrew Cooke Magnet School's greenhouse on Belvidere Road in Waukegan.

The produce was donated to the COOL Food Pantry in Waukegan on Tuesday.

To get the food ready for COOL volunteers, students spent an entire class period picking lettuce, spinach and basil out of tower gardens — which are vertical, aeroponic pods that grow plants without the need for soil — and carrots from pots.

The greens were planted six weeks ago, said Todd Freer, greenhouse program instructor.

The harvest was the largest this school year, doubling the amount that has been donated to COOL previously, Freer said.

On Tuesday, the kids worked diligently, pulling out the vegetables that cascaded down from tower gardens.

At times, it took the strength of two pairs of hands to pull a vegetable out along with its thick, long roots. Some of the children had to reach out their arms as far as they could to reach the greens inside the growing systems that towered over them.

"It's important that students learn that if they can help, they should," Freer said.

Pantry volunteers will wash the vegetables and make them ready for families who visit the site on Wednesday morning, said Gayle Olson, pantry operations manager.

Olson said she's grateful for the assistance, which is much needed as the pantry serves 2,000 families each month.

"This is a significant donation, because with the price of produce at the grocery stores, we have families looking to us daily to feed their children," Olson said.

Cooke's donation will probably feed 40 of those families, Olson added.

On Tuesday, the boys and girls who picked and bagged the produce said they were happy that the vegetables they planted and watched grow would be food that hungry families will eat this week.

Pleased with the large amount of vegetables that the last harvest of he school year produced, Freer said the greenhouse has been an amazing classroom that has given him tools to teach students a myriad of information on gardening, nutrition and altruism.

"Students have become aware that food just doesn't show up on their plates; it comes from gardens and farms, and it takes a lot of steps to get it it to the markets," Freer said.

Students have also discovered new veggies they never knew they would enjoy.

Jayden Herrera, who was was tasked Tuesday with holding scissors that he used to cut roots off the vegetables that his classmates brought to him, held in one hand a piece of cilantro he picked from another part of the greenhouse.

In between his cutting assignment, the 10-year-old sniffed the cilantro leaf.

"It's my favorite smell of vegetables," Jayden said, adding that his grandmother uses it often when she makes chicken soup, which he loves to eat.

Throughout the year, students have grown different types of vegetables, Freer said, which have been used to make salads in class and for sales in school fundraising efforts.

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