Down on the farm with Summer Jobs 253

Six interns, a biology teacher, and Abe's Golden Acres fight hunger

7/21/2016 | TACOMA, Washington

​The morning begins with a discussion of the day’s harvest; two kinds of peas, zucchini, arugula, spicy lettuce, cilantro and herbs to be bundled and bagged. Potatoes need sorting as well. This afternoon, the day’s harvest will be distributed to the needy at a local food bank.

The farm has a name: Abe’s Golden Acres. But don’t expect to see plaid shirts and coveralls.

“We have quotes from Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. on the walls of our greenhouse,” said Lincoln High School biology teacher Kale Iverson, a compact man whose bushy beard and man-bun wouldn’t look out of place at a Phish concert. “We’re rocking Nike T-shirts with our logo and school colors. We want this to be mainstream. We want it to be cool.”

The plant beds, greenhouse and a small tractor shed occupy a sliver of land on the Lincoln High School campus next to Lincoln Park. During the school year, Iverson and dozens of his Plant Biology students and horticulture club members grow starts for the annual Lincoln Plant Sale in April—one of the largest in the Puget Sound area. In the summertime, the harvest yields hundreds of pounds of food for local food banks, tended by Iverson and six young people from the Summer Jobs 253 program.
Summer Jobs 253 gives students 120 hours of paid summer work, plus two academic credits, while they also serve the community. “Students from all over the district are out in the community getting real experience and serving local organizations and businesses,” said Iverson. “It’s a great way to get credits, some financial responsibility, job skills and community service—all in one program.”

This year’s crop of Summer Jobs 253 interns are familiar with the farm—they’re all recruits from Iverson’s classes and the horticulture club.

“I was in the club, and it’s something I really like doing,” said Jordan Hollins, meticulously picking snow peas from a tangle of vines. “This is the same thing, and we’re getting paid for it.”

Amaya Escamilla started the day with a spill on her longboard, so she’s a little sore and sports a bandage wrapped around one shin. The dings and dents don’t slow her down, however, as she sorts potatoes with a practiced eye.

“Mr. Iverson told me about a man who started small like this and ended up the director of a big nursery,” she said. “That sounded like something I’d like to do.”

She pauses mid-potato for a moment and smiles. “I’m also into music.”

Across the sorting table, Chrissy Vat speaks softly and pauses between sentences as if considering her words carefully. On the other hand, she, too, flies through the sorting process without losing a beat.

“I used to really like strawberries,” she said. “But I’ve never actually cared for and harvested plants like this. I really wanted that new experience.”

Iverson began his fresh produce crusade as a teacher at Stewart Middle School.

“The community garden at Stewart Middle School was one of the first large-scale community gardens on school property that the district had seen,” Iverson said. “With minimal knowledge and a few great kids I was blown away at how much food could be safely grown in school spaces.”

With a major modernization at Stewart taking the middle school’s garden space offline for a couple of years, a job opening at Lincoln High School piqued Iverson’s interest.

“I saw the opportunity to expand an already very successful horticulture program into an agriculture program that could really make a dent in community hunger,” said Iverson. “Having access to fresh local produce is a civil rights issue that most people don't think about.”

Now, community gardens exist at several Tacoma schools, and Iverson and the Summer Jobs interns tend and harvest those spaces in the summertime as well.
Abe’s Golden Acres is located in the center of East Tacoma, a working farm in one of Tacoma’s most diverse neighborhoods and home to some of the city’s most economically disadvantaged families.

“Quality food equals a quality life,” Iverson said. “If we really want to help people, we have to feed people good food. Our little farm isn't enough. We are a little drop in the bucket of St. Leo's. But we can also serve as a symbol of what could be possible. Someday I would love to see a food-producing garden in every school. It would never be enough to replace food purchasing, but it could be enough to at least reconnect people to where their food comes from.”

Nothing goes to waste at Abe’s Golden Acres. Leftover starts from the annual plant sale become new crops on the farm; this year the bounty going to the food bank includes 15 different types of tomatoes and a lot of peppers, including the rare and nuclear-hot ghost chili variety.

Last year, the farm grew 1,500 pounds of produce for St. Leo’s Food Bank, and this year will likely exceed that—but Iverson said the impact he’s after isn’t about the numbers. It’s about the experience.

“This little farm we now lovingly call Abe's Golden Acres is our simple, humble effort to join the exploding urban gardening and farming movement nationwide, and to start to change the culture of people’s relationship to food and where it comes from,” he said.

“It’s shocking how much good food a little garden, a little water and a little love from kids can create.”

Constantly in motion in the early morning chill, Iverson weighs a tub of potatoes (“This is what 70 pounds of potatoes looks like!”) and crosses over to the zucchini patch to give some guidance to Jose Reyes, who has a vegetable in his hand about the size of a bratwurst.

“You can actually pick a little smaller than that today,” Iverson said. Turns out zucchini was unexpectedly popular at the St. Leo Food Bank on Tuesday.

“We try to adjust to what our customers want,” Iverson said. “We didn’t grow as much zucchini this year, because we figured, ‘Who wants zucchini?’ Then all our zucchini was gone, on Tuesday, just like that. So I wish we’d grown more.”

Kale, on the other hand, not so much. Iverson doesn’t take it personally, despite his first name.

“Nobody wants kale,” he said, with a grin. “Kale’s kind of a boring vegetable.”

This year’s plant sale netted $26,000, and Iverson hopes to use some or all of that money to improve and expand Abe’s Golden Acres. With the students, he’s started brainstorming about new drip-irrigation systems and other professional-level farming technology.

“We’re trying to show people what’s possible,” Iverson said, looking around the vegetable and herb beds. “We’re running on recycled parts, and using wood from pallets to build structures. The benches at our meeting table are scrap wood and a bunch of chairs that were being thrown out. It’s a little quaint and homey, but now we’re starting to think about what it would look like to take it to the next level.”