It’s 7:30 a.m. on a Thursday in Lowell, Massachusetts. The regular sights and sounds of the street unfold: sirens blasting, students playing in a courtyard, construction workers hammering away, and the homeless and hungry lining up outside the Lowell Transitional Living Center.
Adjacent to the shelter, tucked into a previously vacant lot, is a scene uncommon in most urban areas. Chef Nick Speros from Project Bread is harvesting arugula, kale, radishes and strawberries to create a fresh salad later in the day with our students. As a member of FoodCorps, I’m helping. People often stop to inquire about our small but productive urban garden oasis. The quick response is, “We’re growing food in Lowell for our community and schools.” But that is just scratching the surface of what we do.
Lowell is a uniquely diverse city. The birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution, Lowell is also home to the second-largest Cambodian population in the country. We continue to welcome refugee families into our community while also recognizing our historic roots.
While Lowell celebrates the cultural identities that make up the fabric of our city, the challenges our families face regarding food access and finding food that is culturally relevant are real and urgent. More than 40% of Lowell residents are unable to find culturally appropriate food near their homes, and more than one in three neighborhood stores do not sell any produce at all, according to the Lowell Community Food Assessment. Moreover, nearly 80% of Lowell students are eligible for free and reduced lunch, and 36% of our students are overweight or obese, according to a report, The Status of Childhood Weight in Massachusetts.
Beginning with one garden
In 2011, Mill City Grows’ founders Francey Slater and Lydia Sisson started working with the idea that Lowell could be a place known for its innovative approach to food production and food justice. Mill City Grows (MCG) launched with the creation of a community garden hidden away in an abandoned park.
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The success of that garden created buy-in at multiple levels within the community — from residents to city officials to schools. Soon, the Lowell Public School district was requesting assistance from MCG to build school gardens and provide programming for students across the city. The demand for school gardens is high in Lowell as gardens continue to prove how powerful they are in tackling childhood hunger locally.
The grassroots efforts that MCG embraces are successful. What began as a single community garden has grown into four community gardens located across Lowell, two urban farms, eight school gardens and a Mobile Farmers Market that makes eight stops around the city.
A growing garden program
To sustain this movement and continue deepening its scope, Slater and Sisson realized that they needed to reach out to a national organization to help build their capacity. In 2014, MCG became a FoodCorps service site to support the expanding school garden program in the Lowell Public Schools system, which is expected to grow from eight to 12 schools next year.
FoodCorps is a nationwide team of leaders working to bring children closer to “real food.” As the FoodCorps service member for MCG this year, I have worked with nearly 2,000 Lowell students from grades preK-12 and built three school gardens.
Looking for long-term change
This past September, we created a free farmers market outside one of our schools, sponsored by a local hospital. For eight weeks, we provided beets, kohlrabi, cabbage, apples and tomatoes to hundreds of families, along with information about how to cook with these ingredients. Every week we heard about how grateful families were and how they discovered that their children actually like fruits and vegetables. This fall, we will launch family cooking classes and introduce children and their families to simple and delicious recipes that utilize fresh seasonal vegetables available from their garden plots or our Mobile Market.
The partnership between FoodCorps and Mill City Grows is the recipe for long-term change impacting childhood hunger and food sovereignty in Lowell. The movement that MCG started and FoodCorps is strengthening is integral to increasing food security for our families. The pieces are there for Lowell to be the food-secure community Mill City Grows envisioned it could be four years ago. With FoodCorps, we are starting to put those pieces together.
FoodCorps Service Member Christopher Horne won the 2015 FoodCorps Victory Growers Award “for a compelling account of hunger and food insecurity,” winning a $5,000 prize for his service site, Mill City Grows, in Lowell, Massachusetts. The award, sponsored by C&S Wholesale Grocers, highlights that many children struggle with hunger and food insecurity, and that the food they receive at school is the most important meal they will get all day.
Funding for FoodCorps is provided by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, AmeriCorps and a diverse array of private and public donors. FoodCorps’ host in Massachusetts, The Food Project, works with local partners in Boston, Cambridge, Lynn, Gloucester, Lowell, Holyoke, Lawrence and Chicopee. Find out more about The Food Project and the FoodCorps team in Massachusetts at https://foodcorps.org/where-we-work/massachusetts
Main photo: Students at McAuliffe Elementary help plant radishes as part of a FoodCorps program. Credit: Courtesy of FoodCorps