Austin Youth Builds Gardens to Feed the Hungry

April 12, 2020 Updated: April 25, 2020

It was 5 a.m. on Christmas Eve in Austin, Texas, and Ian McKenna was just 8 years old. His mother roused him from bed and told him to get in the car. As the two drove, he noticed his sister’s schoolteacher pull up behind them.

When they arrived at the trailer park where his sister’s classmate lived, they opened the trunk. Inside were gifts and a Christmas dinner for the family. This classmate had recently told their teacher in tears that Santa didn’t visit their house for Christmas.

At first the parents stood in silence, and then they began to cry. Filled with emotion, they walked over and gave hugs.

Initially, McKenna thought that this particular family’s situation was an outlier. But he would soon learn that many of his fellow classmates at school relied on school breakfast and lunch, and were going to sleep hungry. Unfortunately, nearly 18 percent of children in the United States don’t have guaranteed access to the daily nutrition they need.

“At first I didn’t believe it, but then I felt concern because I know when I’m hungry, I can’t focus on school and I wanted everyone to have an equal opportunity at school,” McKenna explained.

Since then, he’s been on a mission to feed the hungry with the harvest from his gardens.

Building the Garden

McKenna tried to volunteer at different organizations, such as the food bank, but he was turned down because of his age. That’s when he took matters into his own hands—literally.

He had always enjoyed growing plants, and he began to build a garden at his elementary school so his classmates could have access to fresh, nutritious food. Fortunately, he had tremendous support from his teachers and principal, but building the garden wouldn’t come without its obstacles.

Ian McKenna has been growing produce for those in need since he was in elementary school. (Courtesy of Ian McKenna)

In one particularly horrible incident, McKenna discovered that his elementary school garden had been vandalized. His compost bin had been destroyed, plants had been ripped from the soil, and the garden was littered with broken glass. Undeterred, McKenna got back to work.

“I knew there were people who were just jerks, so I just didn’t let that get to me,” McKenna said.

McKenna could see how much his garden was helping families that needed food. And when he realized that some people didn’t know how to prepare some of the produce, he offered cooking lessons and recipes to his fellow students.

Growing the Love

McKenna began to expand his gardening program to other schools and communities in Austin. His sister’s school asked him to build a garden, and other schools quickly began to contact him as well.

In an effort to feed more kids and families, McKenna has built a total of five gardens at five different schools. When Austin Orchards in Garfield, Texas, learned about McKenna’s work, they donated to him an acre of land to grow produce for those in need.

A year after McKenna started building gardens, his sister joined him and began growing fruit through her own orchard program called Frutas Frescas. She has started orchards in her brother’s gardens and maintains an orchard of her own at another elementary school.

In 2016, McKenna applied to be a grower with Katie’s Krops, an organization that encourages young people to build their own gardens and donate their crops to people in need. The founder, Katie Stagliano, was 9 years old when she donated a 40-pound cabbage she had grown to a local soup kitchen. After realizing how her fresh cabbage could help feed 275 people in need, she founded Katie’s Krops.

“I immediately felt connected to Katie because we had similar experiences fighting hunger. We started at the same age, and we had similar starting stories,” McKenna said.

Ian McKenna grows a variety of produce to provide healthy and nutritious food for the hungry. (Courtesy of Ian McKenna)

Having a garden in his own backyard allowed him to better tend to and protect his plants. He figured out how to install raised beds in what was formally a flower garden, and learned to take advantage of vertical space.

Katie’s Krops also provided funding and support, which has helped McKenna expand his garden and grow a large volume of high-quality produce. He grows year-round and produces a smorgasbord of crops that are easy to store and cook, including tomatoes, kale, lettuce, and potatoes.

To date, McKenna, now 15, has donated 19,225 pounds of produce from all the gardens where he works to those in need, and he is also on the board of directors at Katie’s Krops. He hopes to expand his gardens to other areas in need, as the number of people who are food insecure has increased with the pandemic.

Ian McKenna. (Courtesy of Ian McKenna)

Not only is he continuing to donate produce, he also wants to donate transplants to families so they can grow their own produce at home.

“I look at it like I’m just doing a small part to help others facing hunger, and I just hope I inspire others to help by donating whatever extra they harvest from their gardens,” McKenna said.