Legacy of 'Tomato Man' flourishes in Duluth schoolsAbout 4,500 Duluth students in kindergarten through fourth grade received a tomato plant this week to work into some dirt and a pot and take home to grow. The event is called the Tomato Man Project, named for Ray Picconatto, a Duluth man who grew and contributed hundreds of tomato plants to area schools over the years.
By: Jana Hollingsworth, Duluth News Tribune
Last year, the tomato plant Malik Jones tended to all summer grew seven tomatoes, which he used to make ketchup.
This year, the Nettleton Elementary second-grader didn’t want to mess up a good thing.
“I’ll make ketchup again,” he said Wednesday, after his class’s tomato transplant work.
Jones is one of about 4,500 Duluth students in kindergarten through fourth grade who received a tomato plant this week to work into some dirt and a pot and take home to grow. The event is called the Tomato Man Project, named for Ray Picconatto, a Duluth man who grew and contributed hundreds of tomato plants to area schools over the years. He died of cancer in 2010, a few days after enjoying the sight of students’ tomatoes at Nettleton’s county fair-style harvest festival.
Picconatto would be thrilled to see so many kids learning to garden, said Tom Kasper, a Duluth School Board member and head of the Duluth Garden Flower Society, which organized the event.
“He would be so honored and pleased about what started out as a few tomato plants for a project here at Nettleton has turned into a tomato project for every single elementary student in our public schools,” Kasper said.
Tomato plant contributions came from Engwall Florist and Greenhouse, Sam’s Florist and Greenhouse, Duluth East horticulture students, the Hoffbauer farm and Duluth community gardens. The plants went to the nine Duluth school district elementary schools and St. James Catholic School. It was a big job, Kasper said, but growers were eager to help.
“In my wildest dreams I didn’t anticipate we were going to do all of the public schools this year,” he said. “I had hoped for half, but when we had growers come forward and want to be a part of it … it just naturally grew.”
Last year, only about 20 percent of Duluth elementary students planted tomatoes. It was the first season after Picconatto’s death, and some of those plants were purchased and some were grown in Picconatto’s greenhouse. This year, Kasper and others built toward the massive effort that came to fruition this week.
“Ray thought it was so important that people knew how things grew and to be able to reap their harvest,” said Diane Gould, a member of the Duluth Garden Flower Society helping to teach kids how to care for their plants Wednesday at Nettleton. “It’s important for kids to be outside and learn that things don’t grow at a supermarket. They can grow their own.”
When Michelle Bowker’s second-graders were asked how many students had planted tomatoes at school before and had plants that bore fruit, nearly every hand in the room shot up.
“They get excited about the tomato they had, or that a deer or a critter ate it,” Gould said. “And it may encourage parents to get involved.”
In the fall students will bring tomatoes and vegetables they’ve grown over the summer into school for harvest festivals.
Rheanna Letsos, an Americorps member at Stowe Elementary who helped coordinate the effort, said the group hopes to enlist more growers and expand the Tomato Man Project into other area schools in coming years.