Daniel works alongside Jan Carlos as they harvest handfuls of red and orange grape tomatoes that cascade into tan woven baskets. One row over, Daniel’s sister Emily reaches under the green vine to pick tomatoes with light yellow skins. The weather report predicts 110 degrees today and even at 10 a.m., the sun beats down hard. On the far side of the garden, Elfride takes stock of her row: “Tomatoes, squash, dino kale, chard, chard, chard,” she says. Weeds have taken over and need to be pulled. At the end of the row, sunflowers rise high out of the ground, backdropped by the blue summer sky and the chain-link fence that encloses the garden.
Although growing food during summer in the desert may be challenging, it’s not out of the ordinary. But this garden and these gardeners are. Emily, Daniel, Jan Carlos, and Elfride are all under 14 and part of the Best Day Ever Kids Gardening Project, conceived and led by Taylor Moore, a retired lawyer and gardening enthusiast.
Daniel and Jan Carlos, both 11, talk about good bugs and bad ones: ladybugs eat other insects but white moths lay eggs in squash that hatch worms that eat the plants from the root.
Their fearless leader, Taylor Moore, 84, roams the garden in a sunhat, stopping to help them harvest and answer questions.
“What do I do with these?” Elfride, 8, asks, showing him some green stalks she’s pulled.
Taylor says, “Those aren’t good so we’ll—”
“Put ’em in the compost,” she sings, finishing his sentence with him.
Every week, the kids of the Best Day Ever Kids Garden Project work in four gardens: harvesting produce, tending the garden, planting, weighing the food, and accounting for expenses and income. On Sunday, the eight kids who have worked the hardest at harvest sell their wares at St. Philip’s Plaza Farmers’ Market and the Heirloom Farmers’ Market at Rillito Park.
“We fully believe we are going to change the planet right here in South Tucson,” Moore says. “The solution is not to replace capitalism but to nudge it and replace the value system. Instead of worshipping the dollar, what we focus on is trying to have ‘the best day ever.’”
Moore sees the work these kids are doing as the antidote to a planet suffering from climate change and a culture of greed. “The answer to climate change is food security. Right now, we are working backwards,” he says. “If you were the person in charge of remedying the world, you would know to get kids involved in food security issues. The younger, the better.”
Brian Lambert, the principal of Hollinger K-8 School, agrees. He was introduced to Taylor by Hollinger’s outdoor education teacher, Steve Bland, who told Lambert of the gardening work Moore was doing at other schools. Lambert invited Moore to work with kids on existing gardens at Hollinger that needed more time and attention. He could barely believe his eyes when he saw Taylor working with kids beginning in preschool to dig up weeds and prepare the gardens to be planted; the investment of the kids was contagious—teachers started an after-school gardening club. Although he has seen the work at his school’s garden, this is Lambert’s first visit to the program’s newest garden, at 38th Street and Seventh Avenue, and as he speaks, he harvests tomatoes alongside his students.
“What leader would not want someone with that wealth of knowledge to come in to work with kids and teach them the right way to do things, especially with the focus on sustainability, health and nutrition, and what the kids can do?” Lambert asks. “When I arrived today, they asked, ‘Mr. Lambert, what are we gonna do?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know. You tell me!’ This is exactly what we as educators want to do, to learn from our kids and learn what they’re passionate about.”
An assortment of grownups—parents, grandparents, neighbors, and volunteers—cut up watermelon and cantaloupe for the kids to pass around. They help garden and take breaks in the shade. The dozen kids, ranging in age from 4 to 14, harvest and weigh the fruits of their labor. They break for lunch: some sit and eat tortillas, beans, and orange juice while others, across the garden, spray each other with the water hose until they’re drenched and overtaken with laughter. When Moore makes the call that lunch is over, the kids rush back to harvesting duties.
Moore didn’t start gardening until he was 50 years old. When he and his wife divorced, he was left with the house and her robust garden. Neighbors started to complain of overgrowth in his yard and he figured he’d better do something about it. He went out to pull weeds. “It turned out what I was pulling was cilantro,” he recalls, laughing. “No wonder it smelled so good.” After that, gardening became a passion.
When Moore was a child, his mother ran an orphanage in his hometown of El Paso, Texas. There were always children running through. When he retired from his career as a lawyer and began volunteering, Moore decided to combine his love of gardening with his lifelong love of children.
A hard worker during harvest, Lola was chosen as one of the kids to go to the Saturday market. Taylor picked the kids up before sunrise and they began the day as always: watching the sun come over the mountains as the kids harvested sunflowers and sang. At the end of a long day’s work, Moore dropped Lola at home and as she got out of the car, she told him, “Oh Mr. Moore, this was my best day ever.” As he drove away, he thought: “I’m an old man at the end of my life, why do I need a 9-year-old to teach me this? Why can’t every day be my best day ever?”
In March of 2013, Moore moved to Tucson to be nearer to his daughter, Charlie, and granddaughter, Willa. But he was also ready to begin another kids’ project and was inspired by the Las Milpitas de Cottonwood community farm run by the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona.
The Tucson project started in Moore’s first backyard garden, down the street from Milpitas; it is now operating at four locations: Las Milpitas community farm, Pueblo Magnet High School, Hollinger K-8 School, and their newest venture: The Best Day Ever Kids Garden at 38th Street and Seventh, which offers individual plots so each kid can have their own garden.
Moore says our natural talents must be challenged to have that best day. “These kids are working with nature and doing it all themselves. They feel fulfilled at the end of a long day’s work,” he says. “This can change the value system of capitalism. If you had a zillion dollars, you cannot buy that feeling. You have to earn it.”
“Would you like to hear about our project?” Willa, 12, asks a potential customer walking by the Best Day Ever Kids Garden Project stand at the Heirloom Farmers’ Market. Since it’s Father’s Day, Willa, Moore’s granddaughter, and her mom, Charlie, have come to market to help out. Hollyhocks, an edible flower, float in a bowl of water. Baskets of chard, kale, and tomatoes are spread across the table.
The project receives much community support: The Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona and Community Gardens of Tucson provide seeds, equipment, and volunteer support. Restaurants Urban Fresh and the Tasteful Kitchen donate their compost.
Monetarily, the Best Day Ever Kids Garden Project is built to be self-sustaining. The kids reimburse Moore $10 for gas to take them to the market each week. The kids pay their rent for setting up shop at market and their expenses for lunch. The kids calculate how much to pay the gardeners, a third of what they anticipate making at market for items harvested.
When Moore started, someone advised him to handle the money himself, but for him, the whole purpose of the project was to empower kids every step of the way, from planting to harvesting to selling. “If you live a life and somebody trusts you, life is good,” he says. “But if you live a life where no one trusts you, life stinks. All day, every day.”
They also have a rule that the youngest kid who can do a job, and wants to, gets to do it. With things like accounting, this can slow down the process, but Moore thinks the time is well spent.
After market, Moore and Clark take the kids to the many restaurants that buy their produce including Café Passe, Urban Fresh, Tucson Botanical Gardens, Prep & Pastry, The Nook, and Five Points Market & Restaurant.
At Five Points, Sunday brunch is beginning to slow down when the kids arrive carrying plastic bins of produce to sell. After showing owners Brian Haskins and Jasper Ludwig what is available and calculating the price, Emily, 13, writes two handwritten invoices in her notebook, one for the restaurant and one for their records.
Moore appreciates that, in addition to being a regular buyer, Five Points has never lowballed them. That is not true for all Tucson restaurants, some of which have expected significantly lower prices for quality produce just because the vendors are kids.
Since the kids started coming, when the restaurant opened a year and a half ago, “They’ve become a lot more professional,” says Ludwig. “I coached them, saying: ‘Clean it, make it look beautiful.’ They’re learning not just how to grow food but to go through the whole line of product.”
Ludwig, who grew up on a farm, adds, “Many kids these days don’t have any introduction to what they are learning and certainly not the importance of local food and local economy.”
Leaving Five Points, the kids pile into Moore’s car for their next destinations. After they drop the trailer off, they’ll head to Café Passe to tally their efforts from the week. Then they will prepare to do it all over again.
“You don’t need a revolution. You need to let the people at the top know there is a way they can feel fulfilled every day,” says Moore. “That will change the planet.” ✜