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Bringing the farm to Lowell’s inner city

Volunteers for Mill City Grows harvest produce at their urban farm in Lowell. (Winslow Townson for The Boston Globe)
Volunteers for Mill City Grows harvest produce at their urban farm in Lowell. (Winslow Townson for The Boston Globe)

LOWELL — Noontime on Jackson Street. Blistering heat. The slow crawl of cars past the farm stand on the sidewalk.

“A pound of peaches. Make that two.”

“How much for your corn?”

“Will you be here next week?’’

Almost everything on the table, shaded from the sun by an awning, was grown a block or two away and picked the day before: carrots, lettuce, and kale pulled from raised beds on the eighth-of-an-acre plot at the corner of Middlesex and Pearl streets; Cambodian eggplant, hot peppers, and cilantro from a field behind the industrial park on Pawtucket Boulevard, 3½ acres surrounded by a deer fence.

The farms and the market are the work of Mill City Grows , a nonprofit dedicated to the belief that everyone deserves fresh food. It is demonstrating that conviction with eight mobile markets that deliver fresh produce five days a week.

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They appear Wednesdays at the Lowell Community Health Center and the Saints Campus at Lowell General Hospital; Thursdays on the main campus of the hospital and the train station; Fridays on City Hall Plaza and at the D’Youville senior community; Saturdays at the Align Credit Union; and Sundays year-round at Mill No. 5, a shopping and small business center in an old factory building.

Cofounders and codirectors Lydia Sisson, 31, and Francey Slater, 34, both Lowell residents, started the venture in 2012, convinced that they didn’t have to commute to jobs outside the city to do what they love: grow food and teach people how to do it themselves.

The initiative involves developing and running urban gardens, a community gardening program, and the mobile markets; engaging volunteers from the local schools and faith communities; and educating the public about food insecurity and the need to ensure that nobody in the city goes hungry.

Sisson, who studied farming at Vassar College, had been a commercial farmer and small business owner. Slater was commuting to Cambridge, where she worked as an educator at CitySprouts, a school garden nonprofit.

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“I remember one time we were driving around together, and I asked Francey, ‘Do you think we can work together and still be friends?’ ” Sisson says, recalling one of many discussions the two had just before launching the nonprofit. “And she said, ‘I’m pretty sure that Mill City Grows is part of our friendship.’ ”

The markets give the corner stores in the city a run for their money, at least from June through October, when they make fresh, organic, locally grown produce available to people who don’t have cars to drive to supermarkets and are used to buying food in packages and cans.

Behind the industrial park on Pawtucket Boulevard, the field planted on land owned by the city produced 1,000 pounds of food in June; at the smaller plot across the street from Lowell Transitional Housing and the Appleton Mills, 1,200 pounds or produce was harvested.

The larger tract is in its second season; the smaller one in its fourth.

Planting, tending, harvesting, and marketing take many hands: staff, students in career programs, and volunteers. But there would be no program without grants: The Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare Foundation has committed $60,000 over three years, and other sources ranging from the US Department of Agriculture to charitable foundations have given support.

Sisson says the nonprofit’s goal is to fund 30 percent of the operating budget with revenue from the urban gardens and mobile markets, something that will take time.

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But people need to eat now.

On a Wednesday afternoon outside the health center, passersby stopped to admire the table, arranged like a still life.

A mother shopping for hot peppers had a story to tell about her grandmother’s sofrito; a social worker returning to her office after lunch announced the dinner she would cook for herself and her boyfriend: corn on the cob, steamed green beans, and stir-fried zucchini.

Mark Conway, a professional chef who recently moved to the city from Virginia Beach, Va., couldn’t believe his good luck.

“You don’t get good-quality ingredients like this where I came from,” he said.

Darian Guzman, the owner and operator of Casanova Barbershop on Middlesex Street, gazed at the tomatoes.

“The tomatoes look great for a salad,” he said. “I’d give it my recommendation.”

A middle-aged woman with a sleepy face, a cigarette held lightly between her fingers, wanted to know about the prices. Are they high?

In this city of approximately 110,000, 75 percent of schoolchildren qualify for free or reduced-price lunch; nearly 20 percent of families live at the poverty level; and many are immigrants. In 42 percent of Lowell households, a language other than English is spoken.

The prices at the mobile markets aren’t dirt-cheap, but they’re reasonable, near what you would pay at the local supermarket, says 4 Nichols, the market manager. For example, conventionally grown kale at a local Market Basket last week was selling for $1.69 per bunch compared with $2.50 for organic at the Mobile Market; lettuce was $1.29 per head at Market Basket and $1.50 at the Mobile Market; and peaches — which Mill City Grows buys from a local farm that uses environmentally sensitive pest management practices — were $2.50 per pound compared with $1.99 for conventionally grown fruit sold at Market Basket.

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But subtract the SNAP, WIC, and senior discounts and the prices of two items sold at the Mobile Market dropped: $1.25 for kale and 75 cents for lettuce, Nichols says, pointing out that organic foods at the supermarket cost between 10 percent and 25 percent more than conventionally grown products.

In addition, he adds, the food sold at the mobile market is fresher and more nutritious because it is grown close to home, with organic farming methods.

Selection is another selling point.

There are traditional foods such as mustard greens and green eggplants, popular among Cambodians and other Southeast Asians; hot peppers and cilantro for Latino cooks; and other staples that give newcomers a taste of home.

Nichols, an Air Force veteran with a passion for service, says that when you grow food to feed your neighbors, you grow, too. You see similarities where you once saw differences. You judge less and listen more. And you recognize that food is both equalizer and common ground.

“Everybody needs to eat,” he says.


Hattie Bernstein can be reached at hbernstein04@icloud.com.