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Love Your Neighbor: Bounty Abounds In O’Dowd’s Living Lab

‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.“

Mark 12:31

Living Lab

O’Dowd is surrounded by the Oak Knoll, Castlemont, and Toler Heights neighborhoods. Like many of the city’s neighborhoods, O’Dowd is in a food desert. “A food desert is a region where the residents don’t have easy access to healthy and affordable food,” reports Griffin Osser ’22, an O’Dowd EcoLeader. “And right in the middle of this area, we have our Living Lab. It only makes sense that we find ways to make this a connection point with our neighbors.”

Welcoming Neighbors

gargen beds outside the fences

O’Dowd’s Living Lab includes a robust fruit orchard, which grows figs, pomegranate, persimmon, and pineapple guava. We also have an expansive vegetable garden, harvesting  broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, bok choy, collard greens, lettuce, arugula, carrots, beets, radish, and snap peas in the winter and spring, and over 50 varieties of tomatoes, hot and sweet peppers, eggplant, summer squash, winter squash, pumpkins, melon, garlic, onions, beans, potatoes, and artichokes in the summer and fall. “We also created garden beds outside our fences with the specific intention to grow food for our neighbors to access,” shares Otis Johnson, Lead Ecological Gardener. “We welcome our neighbors to come by and pick fruit. We share our vegetable bounty, too. It creates an opportunity to not only provide healthy options for families in a food desert, but it’s also a powerful way to build community.”


Along those lines, O’Dowd’s Creation Care Team planted and grew over 100 pumpkins last summer and fall. In October, the team invited local families to come pick a pumpkin to carve for Halloween. “Sharing together in the harvest is a deep way to honor our school’s Catholic mission and charism,” says Michael Downs, Director of Kinship and Creation.

Bee-utiful Friendships

bee keeping

In all healthy relationships, each member gives to enrich the life of the other. O’Dowd’s gardens need bees to flourish, and luckily, one of O’Dowd’s neighbors, James Griffith, is a bee expert. Since 2018, James has worked with O’Dowd’s Creation Care Team to share research studies, best practices, and his experiential knowledge.

bee keeping

With James’ help, the Living Lab has a thriving bee colony. “Taking care of bees is not easy,” exclaims Otis. “Our neighbor has been a tremendous resource, helping our hive pollinate our fruits and vegetables, which helps us produce stronger crops.” In turn, James has enjoyed teaching students about beekeeping and regularly attends O’Dowd’s bee club meetings. “It’s been truly wonderful to connect with this community,” he shares. “O’Dowd’s Harvest Festival, in particular, is a really fun way to celebrate everything the Living Lab grows. And that’s not just food, it’s relationships, too.”

A Hillside Transformed

garden harvest, peppers

Since 2003, when O’Dowd broke ground to transform one of the school’s hillsides into a Living Lab, we’ve seen amazing growth. Food from the Living Lab is given to the cafeteria to make healthy meals. Any food waste goes into compost bins, which go back into Living Lab soil. “It’s a closed-loop system,” states Devra Laner, one of the Living Lab educators. “By doing everything on-site, we reduce our carbon footprint, and we help address the food desert.”

And we’ve built a stronger community. Sharing food together, sharing ecological knowledge, sharing traditions – these practices have knit our relationships with the Oak Knoll, Toler Heights, and Castlemont neighborhoods closer. “It’s really been special for us students to gain expertise from the local community,” says Griffin. “Each generation gathers new information and passes it down to the younger generation.”


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