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'We Had Fantastic Grapes And No One To Eat Them': How A Venice Middle School Is Helping Its Neighbors

Gardening beds at Mark Twain Middle School in Venice (Aaron Schrank/LAist)
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The produce garden tucked away in a corner of Venice's Mark Twain Middle School is especially tranquil these days. A semi-circle of hay bales, once a crowded outdoor classroom, has sat abandoned for nearly a year. Plastic bins full of soil cultivators and kid-sized cotton gloves gather dust in a nearby tool shed.

Still, the garden itself is thriving, with ready-to-harvest fruits and vegetables scattered across the half-acre plot.

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Before Mark Twain closed last March, hundreds of students would help plant seeds, weed, harvest and even cook and eat the produce grown in the garden. Now, the only person maintaining the place is Paula Sirola, the school's master gardener.

"We had fantastic grapes this year but no students to eat them," said Sirola, kneeling over a raised garden bed on a recent afternoon.

Seeds to Plate Executive Director Paula Sirola runs the gardening program at Mark Twain Middle School. (Aaron Schrank/LAist)

Sirola is executive director of a program called Seeds To Plate which teaches agriculture and environmental stewardship through gardening.

"For many of the students, this is their only connection on a regular basis to nature," Sirola said.

The Mark Twain garden is used across the curriculum, not just in science class. Students learning about ancient Egypt in history class grow and make papyrus there, for example.

Funded by the UC Global Food Initiative and Friends of Mark Twain parent booster club, the garden at Mark Twain is the only fully functional middle school learning garden in the Los Angeles Unified School District, according to Sirola. She hopes to expand the program to more schools.

"Other schools do have gardens," said Sirola. "But they're either not used or really underused."

The outdoor garden classroom that typically welcomes hundreds of students each week has been empty since March. ( Aaron Schrank/LAist)

It's one thing to build a garden, and another to keep it going strong. Since the pandemic began, Sirola has spent 12 hours a week tending to the garden at Mark Twain. She wants to make sure it's still flourishing when the students return. Meanwhile, the plants have continued generating plentiful amounts of fruits and vegetables. "Actually we're producing more, because, since we're not doing any of the teaching and we still have all this produce happening," said Sirola.

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Before the pandemic, most of the vegetables, fruits and herbs were simply eaten by student participants or parent volunteers, although sometimes, surplus produce was distributed to the families of students who are bussed to school.

But after students all went home in March, the garden program had pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables it didn't know what to do with. Initially it partnered with Communities in Schools to give bags of produce to families of students facing social or emotional challenges. When that program faded out months later, Sirola and parent volunteers cast a wider net, looking for a rare food bank that was willing to accept donations of fresh produce.

Hungry Neighbors

For help, they reached out to the office of LA City Councilmember Mike Bonin, who represents Venice. Bonin suggested they connect with Blanca Martinez, who's been running an informal food bank from the alleyway behind her father's home, known as Venice Food Drive, since the pandemic began.

Martinez was pleased to receive the weekly bags of lettuce, broccoli, kale, spinach and peppers coming from the garden.

Students in the Seeds to Plate program at Mark Twain Middle School are an active part of the garden while school is in session. (Aaron Schrank /LAist)

"A lot of families appreciate that because the food is not only organic, but it's fresh," said Martinez, who works as the community representative at Westminster Elementary School in Venice.

Martinez started the food drive in February at the school, where a majority of families are low-income. After students were sent home, Martinez moved the operation to her father's place.

"In my heart, I said I can't cancel," said Martinez. "There's just so many families who are going to be left without a job, you know, who are living check to check that might not have dinner for the family for the next few days."

The Venice Food Drive is open twice a week, offering food products donated from grocery store chains as well as produce grown in the Mark Twain Middle School garden. (Aaron Schrank/LAist)

Martinez is also a volunteer with FoodCycle LA, a nonprofit that works with grocery retailers to distribute food products that would otherwise head to landfills. It means they can offer a whole range of things from milk and eggs to flowers and fruit.

"So a lot of these things come from Trader Joe's, Sprouts, Whole Foods and just surrounding grocery stores that are willing to donate," Martinez said.

When the program began, there were about 10 boxes of food donations to distribute weekly. Now it's more like 60 or 70 boxes, serving as many as 75 families. Martinez and her family sort and display the items like a mini-market.

Some families line up more than an hour before the food bank opens. (Aaron Schrank/LAist)

'Everyone Has To Eat'

The food bank is open from 1:00 to 3:00PM on Mondays and Saturdays, but the line often forms hours earlier.

On a recent Monday, Maria Stevenson, an unemployed waitress and mother of three, was in line by 11am.

"It has almost everything," said Stevenson. "Vegetables, eggs, milk, meat, bread, muffins. That's what we need. I don't have a job, and we can't survive on $300 a week of unemployment. It's crazy."

Most of the families in line are connected to Westminster Elementary School, and many have been coming regularly since March, like Jennifer Perez.

"It helps me a lot to get my fruits and veggies I use for my kids," said Perez. "Right now, with this whole situation, we're short sometimes. I have two boys and two girls, and I need to have a lot more food at home, because they're not at school. They would have their breakfast and lunch and school, and now I need to provide all of it at home."

Blanca Martinez (center) operates the Food Bank from the backyard of her father, David Martinez, (left) with help from her daughter, Emily Martinez (right). (Aaron Schrank/LAist)

The operation started small, but grew after Blanca's daughter, Emily Martinez, created an Instagram account for the Venice food drive.

"It was hard to just be at home with everything going on," said the younger Martinez. "Having this to look forward to on Saturdays and Mondays has helped give us a sense of purpose. We make flyers for the food drive. We clean and sanitize the stuff and make sure it's safe for everyone to come. It's definitely kept us busy."

With more donations from grocery stores and partners like Mark Twain Middle School, the Martinez family hopes to expand the food drive to feed even more people. They say anyone who needs food is welcome.

"We help whoever it is that needs help," said Blanca Martinez. "If you want to take a box for your neighbors, that's okay. We have a lot of homeless around Venice also and we don't say no to them. The need for food, it's always going to be there. Everyone has to eat."