At the ethnically diverse Mark Twain Middle School, the Seed to Plate garden is where families find common ground and during the pandemic its food donation service has become a powerful source of unity.

The middle school, like Los Angeles itself, is a mixing pot of different ethnicities and within its community, like in Los Angeles itself, the coronavirus has disproportionately impacted Latino members.

Parents in the Mark Twain booster club and Latinos Unidos group saw the growing number of food insecure families and paired up with FoodCycle LA to give out bags of food including fresh produce from the school’s Seed to Plate garden.

“I went to a lot of these houses and heard they had family members pass away because of Covid,” said Marina Manjarrez, a Mark Twain parent who runs the food donations. “They’re on their last dollar for rent, a lot of them are laid off or there isn’t work, and they were just so grateful for the food.”

Manjarrez brings food to about 50 local families, including those with children at the school and others who heard about the program through word of mouth.

The Executive Director of the garden, Paula Sirola, has been single handedly growing all the produce during the pandemic and gathers bags of fresh arugula, kale, lettuce, and collard greens to donate each week.

Manjarrez supplements the garden food with dry goods, produce, and dairy products from FoodCycle LA — an organization that collects and recycles excess food from restaurants and supermarkets.

“It’s brought a lot of unity. Everybody is struggling and to see the community reach out and for Paula to provide these things, it makes them feel really good,” said Manjarrez. “It’s created a sense of community because people are at home, people are depressed, people are struggling, and they are just so happy to receive this.”

This is not the first time the garden has acted as a unifying force. When in-person activities were permitted it served as an important gathering place for the school’s diverse students and parents.

Mark Twain Middle School is roughly 61 percent Latino, 19 percent black, 12 percent white, and 8 percent mixed race or Asian.

In the past, the Friends of Mark Twain booster club, which coordinates fundraisers and extracurricular activities, was composed of mostly non-Latino parents.

Manjarrez was one of two Latina members in the booster club and realized that the majority of the parent population was not expressing their vision for the school community, so she started Latinos Unidos as a place for Lantino parents to discuss how they wanted to get involved at Mark Twain.

One highly popular event was the monthly Saturday garden work days where many Latino families showed up and felt like they could contribute.

“People that had never met came together just by sharing food and recipes in the garden,” said Manjarrez. “If you don’t know someone have dinner with them and you’ll get to know their culture and language. It was a really nice and welcoming event and I feel that now people feel more confident that their children belong.”

The team behind the Seed to Plate garden are proud of how the organization has sprouted and blossomed over the years. They look forward to having students back at school, where garden-based lessons form a key part of Mark Twain’s curriculum.