The Parker Fundation

The Theodore Edson Parker Foundation spotlights grantees who have taken intentional and concrete steps in becoming more equitable and inclusive. With the understanding that no organization has “made it,” our goal is to inspire others with practical examples of progress.

Sowing Seeds: Food Justice

Mill City Grows (MCG) is a nonprofit in Lowell, MA that promotes food justice by providing access to and education about local food.

Founded in 2011, MCG serves approximately 15,000 Lowell residents through community and school gardens, urban farming, mobile markets, grassroots organizing and educational programming.

Mill City Grows has developed a strong foundation of inclusion by involving the community in the development of its programming. The organization recognizes it has room to grow in reflecting Lowell’s diverse communities and seeks to expand its board and staff accordingly.

Spreading Roots: Community Involvement in Decision Making

Over the years, Mill City Grows has built its decision-making processes around community needs and values. Program staff engages community members through outreach and community meetings to locate and design local gardens. Residents identify culturally significant crops to incorporate into urban farms and co-design educational programs with MCG staff, taking the lead role as educators.

Moreover, Mill City Grows is currently in the planning phase for a new Market Garden program which will create space and resources for refugee and immigrant growers while providing communities with traditional foods. For the pilot program, gardeners will have access to a plot of land to cultivate traditional Mexican crops which will then be sold through MCG’s existing market network. MCG has formed a community advisory group to evaluate the program and to develop a plan for continuation if the pilot is successful.

Mill City Grows intentionally chose a high level of community involvement in this program development, rather than a strictly data-based or staff-led process. MCG’s experience indicates that this method leads to better outcomes, community buy-in, and a program model which meets the needs of participants and the wider community.

MCG seeks change on a larger scale through institutional partnerships with the Lowell Community Health Center, Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association, UMass Lowell, Lowell Public Schools and other local organizations. Through these collaborations, Mill City Grows is able to reach a wider audience, avoid duplicate efforts, and consolidate resources to deliver new programs such as specialized markets or “food as medicine” farm shares that meet the needs of diverse residents.

Digging DeepMaking Equity and Inclusion a Top Priority

For organizations interested in learning more about equity and inclusion, Mill City Grows’ experience points to key elements:

  • Hire from the community — Reflect the culture and language of program participants
  • Consider accessibility — Language, time of day, and physical surroundings are barriers to participation in programs
  • Listen actively — Involve all levels of board and staff in open conversations
  • Be persistent — Take time to intentionally discuss equity and inclusion, touching the ‘third rail’ of class and race, even if things get uncomfortable. Build in such discussions in board meetings, staff meetings, program evaluations, and other spaces where decisions are made
  • Diversify leadership — Expand the board or use board vacancies to add members who have experienced the challenges your organization is trying to address (e.g. food insecurity) 

About Mill City Grows

Mill City Grows’ mission is to foster food justice by improving physical health, economic independence and environmental sustainability in Lowell through increased access to land, locally grown food, and education. The organization was born out of community needs, specifically 1) to revitalize vacant lots and parks across the City to create safe, attractive, and functional green spaces and 2) to provide access to affordable, nutritious produce as there were not enough full-service grocers in Lowell neighborhoods. Mill City Grows programming instills in the community a deeper understanding of how to access affordable, fresh, healthy food, where food comes from, and how eating healthy food impacts residents’ overall health and well-being.

About the Parker Foundation’s Equity and Inclusion Initiative

The Theodore Edson Parker Foundation favors applications from organizations with balanced representation in staff and management, reflecting constituents served and the diverse community that Lowell has become. In celebration of the Foundation’s new equity and inclusion initiative, Parker staff Chaletta Huertas and Elizabeth Drewry interviewed a number of grantees to highlight the extraordinary work they are doing to create a more diverse organization that represents the Lowell area’s breadth of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. The Parker Foundation is grateful to Mill City Grows’ Jessica Wilson and Lydia Sisson for their time in crafting this grantee spotlight.