Gibson Ek High School graduate Connor Lo grew 130 pounds of fresh produce for the Issaquah Food & Clothing Bank last year. As a senior, Lo planned a legacy garden that could grow even more fresh vegetables for community members in need – a garden that new and returning Gibson Ek students can continue and maintain in years to come. But his ideas, inspiration and the research he put in go far beyond preparing the ground and sowing seeds.
Since Lo was young, he and his family have volunteered at soup kitchens. He's also something of a foodie, and loves eating delicious, fresh food. In his second year at Gibson Ek, Lo researched epigenetics – or the study of how a person's behavior and environment can cause changes that affect how their genes work – and whether lifestyle choices impact health later in life. “Connor is incredibly smart and has a passion for science,” said his adviser, Victoria Mott, who teaches chemistry and biology at Gibson Ek. When studying epigenetics, “He wanted to know: Could a high school student’s decisions today influence their children in 30 years?”
Each of those pieces played into his capstone project, which brings together his work of growing fresh produce to help break the cycle of food insecurity with his research into the myriad of ways that not having easy access to good nutrition can affect people.
During the height of the pandemic, Lo and his family were looking for new ways to help those in need. “I was just trying to find a way to help,” Lo said, noting that they were still cooking and dropping off meals for others throughout the Seattle area. “We’re Chinese, and food is a symbol of hospitality. We put a lot of effort into our meals, and I don’t think having money should be the deciding factor in being able to eat what you want to eat.”
As he started to notice longer lines waiting at the food bank when he drove past, an idea started to coalesce. “I thought, what if I just grow food for them?” Lo said.
And so, in his third year of high school, his parents let him take over the garden space at their home. “I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into,” Lo said. But, he found a mentor, Terry Bockovich of Down to Earth Community Gardens, who did know. Bockovich offered her expertise and helped Lo overcome multiple obstacles, from gathering supplies and donations, to garden pests, to the extreme heat from the heat dome. By reaching out to local companies and community members, he sourced donations needed for his garden, including tires, bricks, seeds, pallets, wood chips, timber and cardboard. Lo planted, replanted, learned to compost, and overcame problems with seeds that didn’t germinate, fungus, rabbits and other pests.
He also did a significant amount of research on the effects of food insecurity on education, including interviewing young people facing hunger, graphing income to overall health of people’s diets, and finding links between food insecurity and lower academic performance as well as health conditions such as anemia and diabetes. “How do we break that cycle?” Lo asked. One part of the answer might be gardens like the one he created at his home and at Gibson Ek. “I called my garden ‘Genesis’ because I want this to be a new beginning.”
Lo led a six-week design lab session for other Gibson Ek students to share his learning, and had the opportunity to present his research and findings during a food bank board meeting.
Kim Skok, the operations manager at the food bank, spoke with Lo several times last year about the food bank’s needs and his plans to help.
“Access to nutrient dense foods such as fresh, organic produce can be difficult for lower income households due to the higher cost of the food. Inadequate access to healthy foods has been linked to diet-related diseases and other health issues,” Skok said. “I love the idea of Connor's garden because it provides a real, tangible solution to addressing these issues. I love that the project will be inherited by future students both so that our clients will continue to receive the produce but also to educate the students on the epidemic of food insecurity in our country and how that is something that they can be a part of solving.”
Donations like these, straight from a garden, allow the food bank to offer fresh, organic produce that they are not usually able to source in any other way, and are very popular with clients, Skok said.
Lo’s most successful crops last summer were tomatoes and cucumbers, and he said he realized that he grew most of the 130 pounds of produce within 25% of the space in the garden, so he built his plan for this year focused on those successful crops. To design the legacy garden at Gibson Ek, Lo created a scale model, then used a 3-D modeling computer program called Sketch Up to refine the plans and increase accessibility and aesthetics. Once the plans were completed, he recruited students who were interested in helping build the garden beds.
Lo graduated from Gibson Ek last week, and his ultimate interest is in healthcare. He is headed to California Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo, where he plans to study kinesiology.
When pausing to think about the work he has done, he said it sometimes catches him off guard. “It’s like, ‘Wow, all of this really happened.’ In middle school, my dad would say ‘You just need to apply yourself,’” Lo said. “After this project, I was like, ‘Oh! That’s what he meant!’”
“I feel really good about it,” Lo continued. “It makes me feel like I can do anything if I just apply myself.”