The Root Cause Blog
20 Jun

Meet Mill City Grows, a 2014 Social Innovator

Written by Shelby Sih, Marketing and Communications Co-op

When Lydia Sisson and Francey Slater first started building a community garden in their hometown of Lowell, MA, they were told it wouldn’t work: it had never been done before, the neighborhoods were too rough, the garden would quickly get trashed. But Sisson and Slater were determined to bring fresh produce to a city with as strong a need and as much diversity as Lowell, and so they ignored the naysayers, planted their seeds and watched their garden blossom. Today, almost two years later, they have tripled their community gardens, expanded into new neighborhoods, increased their land from one to four acres, added mobile markets and educational programs, and become a staple part of Lowell’s local community. Mill City Grows has officially sprouted.

Sisson and Slater are co-founders and directors of Mill City Grows, a 2014 Social Innovator on the “Sustainability in Our Communities: Building Greener and Healthier Cities” social issue track. Combining their experience in agriculture, education and nonprofits, together they’ve created an organization dedicated to increasing healthy eating, economic independence, and environmental sustainability through greater food access and production sites across Lowell.

“Food can change a community and bring people together,” says Sisson. She first experienced the power of food while working on a farm in college, which inspired her to continue pursuing farming opportunities in different degrees - at a nonprofit, apprenticing, and even owning her own farm in an affluent neighborhood outside of Boston. “I enjoyed the work of agriculture, but felt like I was disconnected from my community,” Sisson says. 

Slater also pursued agriculture in college but on a slightly different path: “I was interested in the line between education and agriculture and how health is that middle ground.” Slater earned her master’s degree in education and then worked at a nonprofit with school gardens and outdoor classrooms. However, she soon began to focus on the systemic problems that went beyond the reach of educating students on where food comes from. She explains, “Kids can know what a carrot is and how it grows, but they still can’t go and buy one in their neighborhood.” The more Slater acknowledged this problem, the more passionately she felt that her work should be focused on addressing food access. 

As both Sisson and Slater were commuting outside of Lowell, they began to question why this type of work didn’t exist in their own community and how they could change that. “We challenged each other to leave our jobs and put our money where our mouths were,” Slater comments. So they took the chance and started Mill City Grows, hoping to bring all the benefits of growing food to their local community. Slater explains, “Lowell is such an amazingly diverse place [...] food can be an amazing tool to bring people together and bridge those differences, and create opportunities for people to interact.” 

Mill City Grows’ programs help facilitate this kind of interaction as people from all different backgrounds become involved and are united under this common interest of food. Mill City Grows offers numerous opportunities for Lowell residents to come together and interact, from having a membership to a community garden, to attending educational workshops about gardening, to picking up fresh produce at mobile markets. All these avenues allow for increased unity and sense of community within Lowell. But the benefits of urban food production don’t end there. 

“Having a garden in your neighborhood can not only increase property value of homes around it by 9.5 percent over five years, but can make your neighborhood safer, more welcoming and more connected.” says Slater. While it might seem hard at first to believe that one garden could do all this, it’s important to remember what this area used to be: nothing. Sisson explains, “We’re taking a space that was before completely unused or dumped in and vacant to a place that now has hundreds of people visiting on a regular basis.” As people invest their time and energy into this plot of land, they simultaneously begin to care about the surrounding areas, leading to greater public vigilance that the area likely didn’t have before. “We’ve created strong relationships with the local police force to help and encourage our gardeners to speak up if they see something,” says Sisson.

Not only does it help the physical landscape, but urban food production also has great personal benefits for residents. Slater has noticed that as people begin to understand where vegetables come from and what they need to grow, they begin to make that correlation with their own health and taking care of themselves. “People come and ask us if we’re growing food organically or using GMO seed, even if they don’t know where their next meal is coming from,” Slater notes. With access to fresh, locally grown produce – often for the first time in their lives – they become more aware of the benefits of fresh food and invested in nutrition, and may make more conscious choices to eat healthy and be advocates for themselves as well as others in the community. 

Beyond the physical effects, the presence of these gardens also has psychological effects. Nurturing plants, caring for them, and watching them grow can be extremely therapeutic for people. Slater says they’ve had many residents approach them who live around the urban farms and say, “This garden gives me hope; I come here and I see it growing, and I see it changing, and I know that things will get better.”
With the success of the organization thus far, Slater and Sisson are looking to the Social Innovation Forum to help Mill City Grows shape its programs and make critical decisions about the direction of the organization so that, as Sisson says, “we could grow in a way that is really looking toward impact and making the deepest change that we possibly could with the resources we have.” 

Through this time of growth, they are holding their core value close: to be sustainable, and not just in their food production but also in their organizational programming. “Our food production is where our education happens, it’s where we’re generating revenue, it’s where we’re transforming green space and creating increased opportunities for urban growers to interact with their own food systems,” explains Slater, “and it’s where we’re creating new food access points to help folks who live in the city eat healthy and understand the value of food.” 

While they have big dreams about where they can take Mill City Grows, Sisson and Slater are staying grounded in their goals and impact. “Our model is really holistic,” Sisson comments, “We don’t just try to say we’re going to solve poverty with this; we say, ‘Here’s the things we believe we can touch and change.’ We’re very realistic about what that is and the ripple effect of our work.” Given this mindset, Slater and Sisson both admit they are constantly questioning the way things are done and pushing themselves and each other to do more. But before they even think about expanding, they want to focus on where they started. Sisson says, “We want to really make sure urban food production is reaching every corner in Lowell, and that we change the face of food systems in Lowell.” 

Slater agrees, adding, “There are so many directions that we could take Mill City Grows in terms of transforming people’s lives in the way they eat and the way our food system functions on a local level; that really is our commitment – to understanding and exploring those things and finding the most impactful ways to do this work.” As Mill City Grows continues to cultivate and grow fresh produce, they will also be cultivating and growing a healthier, happier and more sustainable Lowell.

For more information about our Social Innovation Forum, please contact Anna Trieschmann at