Northland Strong: Tom Kasper and the Open Hands Food Project

Tom Kasper has been watering and weeding at Bending Birches Greenhouse since 2016.

“We specialize in doing things organically. And part of our mission to do things right is to also give back to the community,” Kasper said.

Behind the greenhouses that sell vegetable plants and perennial flowers are rows of vegetables, herbs, and more flowers. A sign outside the gate reads “Open Hands Food Project.” Everything grown inside the fence is given away.

“I volunteered for several years at the Damiano and still do, and I just kind of noticed that there wasn’t a lot of fresh food,” Kasper said.

So he offered to lend a hand, donating everything he grows in a large field to places like the Damiano Center, Chum, and the Two Harbors Food Shelf.

“We hear from those organizations that oftentimes, it’s the only fresh food that they have to give away that week,” he said.

The flowers are also cut, arranged in bouquets, and brought to area nursing homes.

A bouquet from the Open Hands Food Project. Tom Kasper

In 2020, the project yielded 2,100 pounds of food. In 2021, the harvest added up to 10,000 pounds. And Kasper says last year, they donated 5,000 pounds.

“The volunteers are really the key,” he said.

On a Tuesday afternoon in late June, there were around half a dozen volunteers weeding, pulling radishes, and making sure green bean seeds were sufficiently covered. Laura Haack was one of them.

“During COVID, during 2020, the restaurant Lake Ave. that I work for was closed,” Haack said. “I was out hiking with my dog. I stopped by here. I met Tom, first of all, and he showed me what he was doing out here, this whole field was planted and he was gardening it alone.”

She changed that, jumping in and spending “pretty much that whole summer” in his garden. She’s now digging into her fourth season with Open Hands.

“Being able to have a carrot picked out of the garden, there is nothing that rivals it. There is no carrot anywhere on earth that you can buy in a grocery store that will ever taste like a carrot freshly picked out of the garden. It’s incredible,” Haack said.

Brook Novitzki was working at Bending Birches Greenhouse just north of Duluth when she learned about the project.

“I really like gardening and working hard and seeing how hard work can turn into plants and growing and helping out people,” she said.

Novitzki is in high school and one of the most reliable volunteers who come together to make Open Hands happen.

“I’m really glad to be helping people. I always want to give back to people,” she said.

Haack said working with Novitzki, Kasper, and others is the best part of her week.

“I mean, it’s a testament to generosity and kindness and coming together for a greater purpose,” Haack said. “It’s a labor of love. It is many hands make light work. I mean, there’s so many things that come out of this project.”

“I think we can all play a small part in helping those folks that need additional help,” Kasper said.

That is why Tom, the volunteers, and his garden are Northland Strong.

Tom Kasper. Kyle Aune/WDIO