For our Grantee spotlight this month, TPC member Susanne Beck interviewed Lydia Sisson, the founding co-director of Mill City Grows (MCG). MCG increases community access to healthy, fresh food through the development of urban food production and distribution networks.
Q: Tell me a little about yourself and how you came to found MCG.
I first got into farming when I was in college at Vassar. After college, I went WWOOFing (willing workers on organic farms) in Europe and loved it. When I came back to the US, I took a job in Lowell working with UTEC in what was then their farming program. In pretty quick succession, I apprenticed at Green Meadows Farm and then started my own community supported agriculture farm in North Reading.
Q: What was the neighborhood group looking for?
They wanted to set up a community garden. Given that many of the community residents were immigrants with strong home-growing skills and interests already, there was a huge demand for any support we could provide – not just in terms of gardening techniques, but also for some of the less technical stuff like leadership. Francey and I were still working many different jobs at the same time. But, we decided the time was right to put together a Board of Advisors, secure a fiscal agent, and start writing grants. Mill City Grows was born!
Q: What was your goal?
Our initial goal was pretty simple: Empower Lowell residents to create the food system that they wanted and needed. Lowell is very diverse both ethnically and socioeconomically. There is considerable poverty, with over 20% of city residents receiving SNAP benefits. We didn’t want limited financial resources to dictate residents’ eating habits or opportunities. We wanted residents to be able to eat healthy, to grow their own produce, and access as much fresh, affordable food as possible. We also wanted them to be able to enjoy some of the same produce they might enjoy in their countries of origin.
Q: You mentioned in your application a number of other organizations (CitySprouts, The Food Project, and Southside Community Land Trust) that are involved in similar work. What makes MCG different?
There are two very distinct aspects to what we do. First, we are the only organization that is doing this work in Lowell. Second, compared to some of the other programs, we are holistic in terms of how we think about, and participate in, the increasingly complex food system. We work across a number of areas including community gardens, school and other partner gardens, farmers markets, educational programs, and so on. We are also pretty young as an organization and all of the other organizations that work in the food system have been gracious in mentoring us through this process. In just a few years, we have gone from just Francey and me to a staff of 17. That alone is something!
Q: Tell me about how TPC’s grant is being used.
First, thanks to TPC, we were able to hire a financial consultant who helped us take stock of what we needed in order to support a strong financial operation. For example, we learned that we could and should outsource the bookkeeping function. It may sound simple, but without the funding to bring in the additional expertise, we never would have freed ourselves up in the way that we did so that we could do the work we believe we are really intended to do.
We have also been able to undertake a long-overdue strategic planning process. Francey and I knew for a long time that we had to do it, but we never had the time or the skills to make it happen. With TPC’s funding, we were able to find not only the time but the energy to jump-start the process, engaging the Board and working quickly to identify a facilitator who will help us finish the work during two upcoming retreats. Without TPC, frankly, we would have been dead in the water on this front.
Oh, so much talent! So many connections and heaps of professional guidance from super-talented women! For instance, I reached out to our TPC liaison, Pat, for help with some human resource issues. At a TPC event, I was approached by TPC member Liz Altman, who is a business professor at UMass Lowell. She offered to help with our business plan for a mobile market that we’ve been dreaming about. Help and then some: Students in one of her Master’s level classes are currently competing to design the most workable plan. They will be presenting to our Board in the next few weeks. Really amazing. Liz also invited me to be part of a Women in Leadership panel. So you can see, the connections are amazing.
Right now, our big need is for IT support, especially around setting up systems. That and database expertise with Sales Force.
Q: What is most gratifying about your work? Is there an example that stands out for you?
Where I have had the most satisfaction – and the most joy – is with the people. Working alongside them, seeing how important these gardens and food are to them, and bringing them together with others in the Lowell community with whom they would probably never have connected. It is clearer to me every day that this is so much bigger than Francey and me. This is about the people of Lowell and especially the 160+ gardeners and their families we have had the honor to work with.
Maybe the best example of the full arc of what we are able to do is Macayla. She was part of “J Squad,” a program we developed in partnership with the Career Center where we host 4-6 youth jobs for six weeks in the summer. Macayla really jumped in. She did everything…she even cooked at home and brought food back in for the other students. When the program was over, she really wanted to stay with MCG. She is now a community gardener and has recently signed on to be part of the community garden leadership program. She is a student at Middlesex Community College and has chosen a major that is more aligned with what MCG does. Macayla is a living example of the full range of opportunities we offer. It’s amazing. And so is she!