This time last year when Charlene McKowen was still principal at Anzar High School, she was busy with classes full of students and a looming graduation. This year, she comes by the deserted campus in San Juan Bautista to tend the garden now supplying produce to school staff while the facility is closed during the coronavirus pandemic.
In 2005, master gardener Mary Ann McCormick worked with Anzar students to lay out a garden near the parking lot with 17 raised planter beds. She also laid out an orchard including lemon, peach, and persimmon trees on the other side of the parking lot. Woodshop students built the fences that now support grapevines, as well as benches and a large gazebo.
“It was great because the students had a lot of buy-in,” McKowen said. “In the 15 years the garden has been here, there has never once been a case of vandalism or tagging because the students are involved.”
McKowen took over managing the garden eight years ago when the school budget tightened and McCormick’s position was eliminated.
“In no means did I have the qualifications that Mary Ann had, but I didn’t want it to be like school gardens where the kids who start the garden leave and the garden goes to seed,” she said.
Before sheltering in place closed the school, McKowen regularly held a class in the garden with six to 10 students. The class counted toward a service-learning graduation requirement.
“Students would learn how to plant, maintain, harvest, grow from seed, and generally take care of a garden,” she said. “We would harvest once a week and at first we would put the food on a cart near the office for teachers and staff, and sometimes students.”
As the yields increased, McKowen switched to a program of creating produce boxes that people at Anzar could buy each week. With the staff and students gone for the rest of the school year, McKowen is not letting the garden’s bounty go to waste.
“The garden has been going gangbusters all year,” McKowen said. “Then the pandemic happened. Teachers are lucky because they are still working, but that does not mean they have not been hit economically. I knew now more than ever that the participants in our program might be needing some help.”
A list of what’s available from the garden goes out to Anzar staff each week. McKowen then fills the orders for pick-up or delivery, and prepares boxes for eight or nine staff members.
“I customize the boxes for each person,” McKowen said, “so I don’t give them produce they won’t use. I don’t want any of it to be wasted.”
Maya Gomez-Sheehy has been teaching Spanish at Anzar High School for the last three years, and has been a regular client of the garden the entire time.
“It’s been wonderful,” she said. “I have two boys and I am still teaching and in a graduate school program. I can’t get out to the grocery store a lot and fresh produce is hard to come by.”
Gomez-Sheehy lives in Santa Cruz, as does McKowen, who brings Gomez-Sheehy a box every week.
“Charlene customizes the box for us because she knows exactly the things we like,” Gomez-Sheehy said. “The last box had things like spinach, lemons, bib lettuce, and cabbage. For $3 a box, it’s a wonderful deal. I feel guilty because she charges so little. I am so appreciative of what she’s doing.”
The Spanish teacher said she’s taken an interest in growing things herself.
“I’ve been inspired by her effort to grow a few things myself,” she said. “The kids are so excited about the produce that we started a little vegetable garden here.”
McKowen makes sure to include some special treats in the box for Gomez-Sheehy’s children.
“She always picks out some funny looking things, vegetables that look silly,” Gomez-Sheehy said. A carrot that looked like a hand with fingers was a particular favorite of her four-and-a-half-year-old son Mateo. “He refused to eat it for days because he thought it looked too cool.”
Lara Hollinger is the culinary arts instructor at Anzar. For the last four years, she’s been an enthusiastic recipient of the food boxes and incorporates the garden into her class lessons.
“I frequently take my students on field trips to the garden, talking about what is in season,” Hollinger said. “We help them by doing composting in the classroom, which we add to theirs at the end of our cooking labs. I think it’s good for the students to see things growing. Many of these students have parents working in the fields and I think it’s important for them to see what they can do with their own hands.”
McKowen said the garden has always been a “little mini-business,” but she feels it now has a stronger appeal.
“I am working in the garden alone,” she said. “It’s a labor of love that has turned into a bigger deal for the participants than it had been before.”
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