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American Legion post plants pizza garden with local students

kids planted peppers, tomatoes and other typical pizza toppings in a garden plot divided into triangles like pizza slices.

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Posted on: May 9, 2024

By KATIE V. JONES

Who doesn’t like pizza?

On April 10, Sean Phelan, second vice commander of American Legion Squadron 217, led seven kids, ranging in age from 5 to 15, in a culinary adventure. Working as a team at College Park’s American Legion Post 217, they created an enormous pizza — though they will have to wait until June, or maybe even July, to eat it.

As members of the post’s youth garden program, the group planted a pizza garden: a  six-foot  diameter circular garden featuring slice-shaped plots filled with plants that will become pizza toppings, including peppers, tomatoes, eggplant and basil. The young gardeners also planted beds with salad fixings: lettuce, broccoli, corn, carrots, cucumbers and watermelon.

“This is my first youth garden,” Phelan said. He originally proposed planting a vegetable garden after seeding a successful flower garden at the post last year.

Joe Loham, detachment commander of Maryland, came up with the idea to involve the kids.

“I was talking with Joe about volunteers, and he said, ‘Get youth to help with the garden,’” Phelan explained. “He was really excited. He helped me fine-tune the idea and [helped] with the paperwork.”

Loham, a member of American Legion Laurel Post 60, chairs the Sons of the American Legion Commission’s Children and Youth Committee. The committee’s work is integral to the third of four pillars on which the American Legion was founded. The four pillars are Veterans Affairs &  Rehabilitation; Americanism; Children & Youth; and National Security.

“How do you get kids more involved at the community level?” Loham asked. “You pick a project you think works years down the road. Talking with Sean, growing a pizza garden is a way to get kids outside and aware.”

Loham and Phelan drew up a plan, and Loham presented it to the Sons of The American Legion National Advisory Committee at the organization’s headquarters in Indianapolis in October 2023.

“They accepted it, and I have been promoting the heck out of it ever since,” Loham said. “We’ve been doing fundraisers and [securing] grants to deal with supplies.”

The pizza garden’s beds were paid for through a $2,580 grant from the Chesapeake Bay Trust’s Veterans Engagement Mini Grant Program. That funding also supplied fencing to keep out animals. 

The post actively recruited kids to participate in the free program. The team meets monthly to tend the garden, though, as Phelan noted, they are encouraged to weed and water there more frequently. For its June meeting, the team is going on a field trip to the National Arboretum in the District.

Sean Phelan stands at the gates of the garden he helped create at American Legion Post 217 in College Park.
Photo credit: Katie V. Jones

“This youth garden program is geared toward kids’ curiosity and the outside,” Phelan said. “One of the kids was surprised there were edible flowers.”

Both Loham and Phelan said they would like to see the program grow.

“We’re hoping this concept expands to other posts, not just in Maryland, but everywhere,” Phelan said. “Everyone is optimistic. Members at the legion liked seeing the kids around and playing in the dirt.”

“We’ve learned a lot and not only how to grow stuff,” Loham said. “It’s a pilot program. Sean’s done a wonderful job working on it.”

Loham underscored Phelan’s dedication with a story.

“There was one scare of a freeze one evening, and he ran to cover the plants up,” said Loham, laughing. “We need the kids to come back and not find everything dead.”

While Pelham said planting the garden in April might have been a bit risky, given how unpredictable spring weather can be, he hopes the team can start to harvest the garden’s produce soon.

“We’re all having fun,” Phelan said. “I’m looking forward to the next time me and the kids get together and get our hands in the dirt.”

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