Students in Project Hope 2020 had their sessions cut short due to COVID-19, but they are back strong for another year of gardening and feeding their communities.

The program, founded by Alcoa resident and retired food scientist Logan Hill, invites middle and high school students to become vegetable and fruit growers as they perform every step in the process. That includes using bug identification, math skills to dissect garden rows in order to space them evenly, and science knowledge to understand the content and needs of soil.

“These kids are looking at the benefits of bugs much more differently than in the beginning,” Hill explained. “Some were scared of worms but now they see how they help a garden. Now they embrace them.”

Project Hope kicked off its fourth year on May 1 with most of its 2020 students participating in its STEM program.

This year’s class includes Joshua Scaife, Jack Touton, Peyton Potts, Holland Harvard, Aliyah Misako, Morgan Raiford, Caleb Ford and William Robinson.

Even with the significant impact of COVID-19 last year, the students planted and harvested more than 49 different varieties of vegetables and fruits. They supplied more than 14 senior citizens with produce, supported a local church’s feeding program, were able to take some produce home to their families and tasted many of the products in recipes developed by a master gardener chef.

Despite the program having to shut down in September last year, crops came in.

“The vegetables still grew,” Hill said. “We had volunteers who came in to help harvest. I had no idea there were so many varieties until I started counting. I was blown away.”

Hill began Project Hope after some neighborhood kids began asking him about his own backyard garden. He said it became evident they hadn’t thought much about where food comes from and who produces it.

He created the program to incorporate many STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) lessons. Sixth graders through high school are accepted into the program.

When it first launched, the participants met at Hill’s Alcoa home on Saturday mornings to tend to that one patch of ground. There now are two gardens at Hills’ home and also two raised beds on Franklin Street donated by the city of Alcoa.

Men in Christ/Men in Community teamed up with Hill to help get Project Hope started. Others who’ve had a hand it its success include Gloria Miller, who serves as the education coordinator; Nancy Neilsen, technical coordinator; Caroline Tate, student/parent coordinator; Sandra Widmeyer; and Adriel McCord of Fist Horizon Bank, where the students open savings accounts for the money they earn.

The students who participate receive a stipend each month and are required to save a portion of the money. They tend to every aspect of the garden, from its design to weeding, planting, controlling pests, watering and harvest. The students come together on Saturdays at the gardens.

Project Hope will continue the three growing seasons but will be focused on producing more of the items that Hall Community seniors like the most — greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, okra, squash, lettuce, sweet potatoes and melons. Greens are being harvested now and summer crops are going in the ground.

The anatomy of plants and agriculture skills are being taught to the students by master gardeners, technical community teachers and hands-on volunteers.

Gloria Miller, past Alcoa Middle School team leader, started the students’ 2021 journey with a lesson plan on STE(A)M. This is the foundation for the rest of the lessons that will be presented each week throughout the year. This was an exciting introduction and exercise engagement for the students.

The students will have 15–20 minutes of garden lessons at the beginning of each Saturday class before heading to the gardens to put learning into actions.

On Saturday, students spent the day cleaning up the gardens and putting down plastic borders to prevent weeds from growing. Next week, they will plant veggies and remove weeds inside the garden.

The session ended with the kids getting to taste a vegetable and fruit pizza that was created from all the vegetable and fruits the kids planted last year.

Hill is optimistic about this year’s plan. The bigger picture with Project Hope is to get these students interested in science so they won’t fear it in high school.

“The periodic table looks like a strange document,” he said. “But not after they start recognizing oxygen and hydrogen. We want them to embrace science and not fear it. That way they can perform better once they get into high school.”

This program geared toward middle and high schoolers has reached beyond. Community members who have seen them in action now want to plant raised-bed gardens.

That’s just one more positive that has come out of this, the founder said.

Melanie joined The Daily Times in the early 90s and has served as the Life section editor since 1993. A William Blount and UT alum, Melanie is generally the early arriver who turns on the lights in the newsroom.

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