When COVID-19 put Tom Kasper's volunteer efforts at the Damiano Center on hold last spring, he looked for another opportunity to help and found one right on his business' property.

The owner of Bending Birches Greenhouses decided to create a garden on a half-acre of his land beside his greenhouse and donate the produce to the center.

"I knew there was a need for fresh food from my time there, so when I approached them, they were very much in support of it," Kasper said. "I got it started, and as people visited the greenhouse, they started asking if they could help, and I said, 'Yes, please!'"

One such greenhouse visitor was Laura Haack, co-owner of the Lake Avenue Restaurant & Bar. When the pandemic put her restaurant temporarily on hold, she also found herself with time on her hands. She visited Kasper's greenhouse and was impressed with the garden.

"It was the biggest garden I've seen one person do on their own," Haack said. "So I asked if he wanted some help."

Newsletter signup for email alerts

"And I gleefully said 'yes,'" Kasper said. "Laura's been a lifesaver. She's been coming up every week, a couple of times a week."

Laura Haack pushes a wheelbarrow of fresh produce from the 2020 growing season at the Open Hands Food Project at Bending Birches Greenhouse. All the fresh produce grown was donated to the Damiano Center last season. (Photo courtesy of the Open Hands Food Project)
Laura Haack pushes a wheelbarrow of fresh produce from the 2020 growing season at the Open Hands Food Project at Bending Birches Greenhouse. All the fresh produce grown was donated to the Damiano Center last season. (Photo courtesy of the Open Hands Food Project)

Together, Kasper and Haack tended to the garden with a few other volunteers and managed to grow about 2,500 pounds of food. Every Tuesday, they'd load up the produce and take a trip to the Damiano Center and unload the bundles of tomatoes, potatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, carrots, peppers and more.

"I think our biggest weekly donation was about 325 pounds, towards the end of the season," Kasper said. "That one was mostly potatoes, as we had a big year for tomatoes and potatoes."

Kasper said it was really rewarding to hear comments from the program coordinators about the donations every week. Some of the Damiano's attendees had never tried fresh vegetables such as eggplant or kohlrabi before.

"It was fun to hear about people trying out new recipes and getting into these new foods," Kasper said.

A cart full of fresh produce sits ready to be pushed inside the Damiano Center in Duluth when the Open Hands Food Project makes a donation on a Tuesday during the 2020 growing season. (Photo courtesy of the Open Hands Food Project)
A cart full of fresh produce sits ready to be pushed inside the Damiano Center in Duluth when the Open Hands Food Project makes a donation on a Tuesday during the 2020 growing season. (Photo courtesy of the Open Hands Food Project)

After the season ended, Kasper and Haack started planning for their next season. This year, they're attempting to double their donations, setting the goal at 5,000 pounds of food. They're also reaching out to more organizations. This year's proceeds will be split among the Damiano Center, Second Harvest Food Bank and the Superior-Douglas County Family YMCA's Every Meal program.

In order to grow more food, the Open Hands Food Project has also doubled the amount of space dedicated to growing. During the program's first volunteer day in late April, a dozen people were in the fields picking up rocks and getting the soil ready to be tilled.

For volunteer Tif Grange, it was a good opportunity to get outside with her mother, Terri Rossman.

"I heard about it on Facebook and thought it sounded like a good opportunity to work behind the scenes for a good cause," Grange said. "Plus, my mother has been cooped up since COVID hit, and I've been trying to find ways for her to get out. She's been enjoying the chance to visit with people her own age."

Volunteer Tif Gange fills a bucket with rocks during the first volunteer field day, April 28, 2021, at the Open Hands Food Project. Volunteers prepared a new field for tilling by digging up rocks. (Teri Cadeau / tcadeau@duluthnews.com)
Volunteer Tif Gange fills a bucket with rocks during the first volunteer field day, April 28, 2021, at the Open Hands Food Project. Volunteers prepared a new field for tilling by digging up rocks. (Teri Cadeau / tcadeau@duluthnews.com)

Grange is pretty new to gardening, but said she's hoping to learn more throughout this season.

"I honestly have the worst green thumb, but I can follow directions if they tell me what to do," Grange said. "So I'm hoping I'll come away having donated my time to a worthy cause and with a few more gardening skills."

Rossman has a little more gardening experience, but she's never worked on a garden of this size before.

"We always ate whatever we grew. So this is much bigger than anything I've done," Rossman said. "I'm sure I'll be sore from all the bending tomorrow, but it'll be worth it when we see everything growing."

Kasper and Haack plan to post volunteer opportunities on the Open Hands Food Project Facebook page every week or so throughout the season.

A load of fresh produce, including tomatoes, beans, corn, eggplant, broccoli, squash and melon, sits ready to be packed up and transported to the Damiano Center during the 2020 growing season at the Open Hands Food Project. (Photo courtesy of the Open Hands Food Project)
A load of fresh produce, including tomatoes, beans, corn, eggplant, broccoli, squash and melon, sits ready to be packed up and transported to the Damiano Center during the 2020 growing season at the Open Hands Food Project. (Photo courtesy of the Open Hands Food Project)

A tractor is filled with rocks dug up from a field in preparation for the growing season at the Open Hands Food Project. (Teri Cadeau / tcadeau@duluthnews.com)
A tractor is filled with rocks dug up from a field in preparation for the growing season at the Open Hands Food Project. (Teri Cadeau / tcadeau@duluthnews.com)

Rows of fresh greens are watered during the 2020 growing season at the Open Hands Food project in Duluth. (Photo courtesy of the Open Hands Food Project)
Rows of fresh greens are watered during the 2020 growing season at the Open Hands Food project in Duluth. (Photo courtesy of the Open Hands Food Project)