Ian McKenna, 16, of Austin, a Travis County Master Gardener, was named by TIME magazine as one of five national finalists for its Kid of the Year selection. He was chosen for his work growing and donating food for those less fortunate in his community.
Now a senior at The Liberal Arts and Science Academy in the Austin Independent School District, McKenna has been gardening since he was four – and growing and providing food to others since he was eight. Over the past eight years, he has led the effort to establish “giving gardens” at several Austin-area schools and has developed his own extensive home garden. To date, these gardens combined have yielded more than 10 tons of fresh produce for low-income Austin-area families.
“Ian also volunteers his time to assist with various food banks and other food-related events and continuously advocates for the underserved in our community,” said Daphne Richards, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service horticulturist for Travis County and Travis County Master Gardener program coordinator. “He has helped with our demonstration garden, volunteered at the East Austin Garden Fair and has spoken at many community venues. He is a dedicated and remarkable young man.”
McKenna’s Texas A&M AgriLife connection
Richards said she was already aware of McKenna and his efforts from his guest appearance several years ago on the Central Texas Gardener television show — a PBS network show on which Richards is a regular.
“What impressed me then was how mature Ian was — and how sincerely committed he was to addressing community food security, even at an early age,” she said. “It’s rare to see someone that young so concerned about such an important issue and also as dedicated to giving his time and energy to helping.”
Richards said McKenna contacted the AgriLife Extension office in Travis County a few years ago to see about becoming a Travis County Master Gardener.
“I was elated to hear from him but knew he was too old for our Junior Master Gardener program,” she said. “So we decided to make an adjustment to our Master Gardener training program and offer it as a summer program — both as a way to help accommodate him and find out if a summer program might be successful.”
Richards said McKenna passed his Master Gardener test with flying colors and soon completed the volunteer hours he committed to as a requirement for becoming a Master Gardener.
Growing food for others
McKenna’s interest in gardening and helping his neighbors started after encountering the daily reality for many Texas children and families.
“I got seriously involved in growing and donating food for the community when I was in third grade,” McKenna explained. “I was helping deliver Christmas gifts and food to the family of a classmate of my younger sister Addison. The girl had never gotten a visit from Santa or had a meal besides what the school breakfast and lunch program offered. She told me she thought the reason Santa had never come to her house was that he didn’t like poor people.”
McKenna said he learned the true meaning of Christmas that day. He also realized there was a tremendous need to provide food for the less fortunate in the community.
“I had always gotten presents and never worried about having enough to eat,” he said. “Before this, I never realized some kids didn’t get presents and even went to bed hungry. Being able to give presents and food to this family filled me with joy and made me feel good inside. It made me want to keep helping people.”
McKenna also said before that experience he was under the impression food insecurity was only an adult problem.
“I just didn’t realize how many kids didn’t get enough to eat,” he said. “I had been told hunger was something adults had to deal with, and I shouldn’t worry about it. But later on, I found out that one in four kids in my own school didn’t have enough to eat. That really affected me.”
McKenna’s plan to help fight hunger
To become more actively involved in fighting hunger, McKenna tried to volunteer at an area food pantry.
“They told me I was too young and couldn’t help there,” he said. “But I didn’t want that to stop me. I spoke to some other people and came up with the idea of growing food to give to the people who needed it.”
McKenna proposed building a giving garden to his elementary school garden club advisors, who agreed wholeheartedly. Once he received permission from the principal, he developed a garden design, recruited volunteers for the build and sought donations from area businesses. The result was the construction and planting of nine raised beds and 15 fruit trees that would help feed 54 families.
“I had applied for a grant and was awarded $500 to build the garden,” he said. “I put together a wish list of materials and went to our local Home Depot to get them. Although the materials we needed amounted to more than $500, the store let us have them at that price. They also gave us free delivery.”
Over the next several years, McKenna led garden builds at three more Austin ISD schools and created his own backyard produce garden. He collaborated with others, especially Austin Orchards, to secure additional space for growing more produce to donate to food banks, hunger relief organizations and individuals in need.
McKenna also has a pop-up farm stand from which he and his sister Addison distribute produce grown in the giving gardens to people in low-income areas of Austin. Additionally, he has hosted community dinners serving more than 1,750 meals and raised more than $60,000 for his gardens and to support an organization that encourages young people to fight hunger by growing food in their own communities.
Other recognition for McKenna
McKenna and other Kid of the Year top finalists were recently recognized during the first-ever Kid of the Year TV special, hosted by Trevor Noah of The Daily Show. The special was shown on Nickelodeon, TV Land, TeenNick and Nicktoons, as well as Comedy Central and CBS television networks. Celebrities who made guest appearances on the special included Simone Biles, Kristen Bell, Billie Eilish, Neil Patrick Harris, Angelina Jolie, Brie Larson and Zachary Levi.
McKenna also received the Prudential Spirit of Community Award as one of Texas’ top two youth volunteers of 2019. The award was presented by Prudential Financial in partnership with the National Association of Secondary School Principals and represents the nation’s largest youth recognition program based exclusively on volunteer community service.
McKenna’s future plans
McKenna said while the COVID pandemic has kept him from doing as much community work as he would like, it has allowed him to focus on applying to several colleges.
“During the pandemic, my mom has been especially supportive, helping me with social media, gardening, managing our Ian’s Giving Garden and Frutas Frescas Orchard and helping me with my college applications,” he said.
McKenna said he is especially looking at colleges that encourage volunteer work and public service.
“I plan to continue supporting the giving garden efforts and want to pursue a degree in horticulture or another field related to my interest in providing food for others,” he said.
McKenna said he will also continue to try inspiring other young people to become involved in growing fresh produce to donate to those less fortunate.
“A lot of people my age say they can’t volunteer or don’t have time,” he said. “I tell them just one small plant can provide food for someone else and can make a difference,” he said. “Even the smallest thing can help.”