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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Iowa teen grew 7,000 pounds of veggies, then gave them all away

Lauren Schroeder poses with some of the produce she grew to donate to families in need in eastern Iowa.  (Katie Schroeder)
By Cathy Free Washington Post

Lauren Schroeder was volunteering at a community food nonprofit when she was 14. As she filled bags with donated groceries, she noticed something that didn’t seem right:

There were plenty of canned and boxed goods, but she didn’t see anything fresh or green to give to families in need.

“I thought it would be great to change that,” said Lauren, now 17. “I wanted people to get the nutrition they needed from fresh vegetables.”

She told her parents that she wanted to start a garden on some of their farm acreage in Dixon, Iowa, so she could supply families with homegrown produce. She wanted to plant lettuce, carrots, tomatoes and zucchini.

The Schroeders plant soybeans and corn every year on their 150-acre farm, and Lauren knew there was room to plant other vegetables. Her mother was proud Lauren came up with the idea, she said, and wanted to support her.

“But I also had a little bit of the devil’s advocate on my shoulder, wondering, ‘Oh my gosh, how much work is this going to be?’ ” said Katie Schroeder, 44.

Plenty, in fact. But Schroeder soon learned that her daughter was up for it.

Lauren had raised rabbits and lambs in 4-H and her FFA club, but she had never tried her hand at planting vegetables on a large scale.

“I did a lot of research online to find out what worked and what didn’t, what plants needed shade, which ones needed more water and when the best time was to harvest each crop,” she said.

Lauren received a grant from the National FFA Organization – a youth organization that promotes agricultural education – to pay for seeds and gardening supplies. In the spring of 2022, she planted half an acre with 15 varieties of vegetables.

When the first green shoots appeared, “it was an exciting feeling,” she said.

That’s when the real work began.

“Our summers are really hot and dry, so I had to water every day,” Lauren said. “Every day, it took about two or three hours before or after softball practice.”

When it came time to harvest, she learned that picking beans was the most challenging.

“I didn’t realize how much bending was required for green beans,” she said. “But they’re still my favorite vegetable.”

She especially loves them fried in butter for dinner.

Over the summer, she checked her crops daily for weeds and watered by hand, using two water tanks attached to a farm utility vehicle to repeatedly fill up her watering can, Lauren said.

With help from her three younger siblings, she was soon ready to harvest and weigh her first crops – the first batch was 40 pounds. She then packaged them and donated the produce to eight local groups, including food banks, a soup kitchen, a nursing home and several social service nonprofits.

“It was a really good feeling to know that anyone who wanted fresh vegetables would be able to get them,” Lauren said.

After that, she was more motivated.

“I knew that I wanted to keep going,” she said, noting that she continued to harvest crops as they were ready throughout the summer.

This year, she doubled the size of her garden to an acre and added 10 more varieties of plants, including herbs, pumpkins, cauliflower and jalapeños.

In the past two years, she’s donated more than 7,000 pounds of produce, including enough tomatoes to make nearly 300 batches of spaghetti sauce, Lauren said. Her efforts were first reported by KWQC-TV.

“Lauren’s project truly comes from the heart,” said Jenna Kingsley, an FFA adviser at Calamus-Wheatland High School, where Lauren is a junior. “Her innate self-confidence and generous hand to help those in need has left an impact larger than she could have imagined.”

Nancy Renkes, president and CEO of River Bend Food Bank in Davenport, Iowa, said she is grateful for Lauren’s commitment to area food banks.

“Not only is she helping our mission of ending hunger, she demonstrates the selflessness and philanthropy that is so wonderful to see in younger people,” Renkes said.

This fall, after she harvested her last crop of the season – sweet potatoes – Lauren began planning for next year. She is aiming to grow another 13,000 pounds of produce and bring her veggie total to 20,000 pounds by the time she goes to college in 2025, where she plans to study diagnostic medical sonography.

“I haven’t planted radishes yet, so that’s on the list for next time,” she said. “And I’m hoping to expand the garden to two acres so we can feed even more people.”

Two of her siblings, Natalie, 15, and Kody, 14, help her box the produce and load it into a pickup, while her brother Blake, 11, helps pull weeds. Then Lauren delivers the vegetables to local nonprofits and a few charities in Davenport, about 22 miles from Dixon.

When her mom accompanied her on one trip, she said that she was brought to tears as her daughter unloaded boxes of cabbage, broccoli and cherry tomatoes.

“Usually, it’s the employees at the nonprofit that come out to greet you, but on this day, Lauren stopped at a domestic violence shelter, and a mom came out to thank her,” Katie Schroeder recalled.

“This woman became emotional and said she couldn’t have a garden like she did in the past, and she was thankful that Lauren’s donations allowed her kids to enjoy the things they used to grow themselves,” she said.

“When you hear stories like that, you know this is making a big impact,” Schroeder added.

Lauren estimates she’s probably put in more than 1,000 hours on her veggie project, and she’s hoping to add 1,000 more.

“I’m learning a lot as I go, and I love giving back,” she said. “I’m happy to do it. Everyone deserves to have something healthy to eat.”