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Fruit of their labor: Whether there's extreme heat, shine or no kids on campus, McKinley Elementary staff keeps its garden growing

McKinley Elementary School's garden, part of the agriculture academy that lets students experience the full farm-to-table process, has missed a few helping hands that keep it growing these last few months. 

Normally, the garden is filled with students preparing soil, watering seedlings, harvesting fruits and vegetables, and later making meals from their crops throughout the school year. But this year's abrupt end to the spring semester also meant the garden would take a bit of a hit.

Crops that were ready to harvest were given to staff members and parents. Leftover plants died, and weeds grew almost 5 feet tall. Even composting worms missed getting leftover scraps from students' breakfasts and lunches, leading to their demise.

"Just having the kids here, walking, they help to maintain the weeds from growing," explained activity leader Mia Castillo. "You can see the difference. They're growing everywhere, and it's more work for us."

For a garden that's referred to as a living classroom, very little life could be seen for some time.

Not wanting to let the area suffer any longer, Castillo and Jesse Sanchez, who work with students and maintain the garden year-round, rolled up their sleeves, cleared out dead plants and got to replanting. 

For four hours a day, the two, switching off which days they come in, feed five egg-laying chickens, tend to seedlings and growing crops, plant new ones if needed and check on the worms.

It was a tough job for two to handle by themselves. During the school year, students do most of the planting and seeding, while the two activity leaders serve as "coaches," in a sense. 

"We had to plant 90 corn seeds, and when you have 20 kids, it gets done quick," said Sanchez. "It's taken a little bit more time to get done" this time around, however.

But the fruit of their labor, literally, can be seen these days: zucchini, corn, watermelons, tomatoes, peaches, pomegranates and everything else in between is growing and near harvest. 

The massive undertaking was worth it, Sanchez said, because it keeps the soil healthy and can provide produce to the community. Earlier in the school year, students put on a farmers market and earned about $500. 

Students even learn how to use their fruits and vegetables to make meals in the school's newly added kitchen, which can turn into healthy eating habits. McKinley Principal Rona Chacon-Mellon said one student last year never wanted to try fruits or vegetables and only ever wanted to eat chicken nuggets and other fast-food items. 

During an hors d'oeuvre tasting, students topped crackers with radishes, Greek yogurt, chives, lemon juice and sea salt, and the student "loved it."

"After that, he started bringing his father to the produce section in the grocery store and they started eating kale and new, healthier things," explained Chacon-Mellon. "It really is life-changing, not only for the child but the whole family. Once they grow the food, they're more willing to try to taste the food and expand those horizons."

It'll take some time for students to get back in the garden since they will start the school year in a distance learning model, but Castillo said most students have the skills to start a garden of their own at home. 

But until they return, Castillo and Sanchez will continue to miss their presence, they said, especially when they have to start planting a new batch of crops when the weather cools down. The worms, too, will miss out on leftover meals for the time being.

Ema Sasic can be reached at 661-395-7392. Follow her on Twitter: @ema_sasic.

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