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Greater Lowell Community Foundation promotes healthy eating during pandemic

LOWELL — As COVID-19 has exacerbated food insecurity all around the region, the Greater Lowell Community Foundation has made it a priority to help the hungry put more healthy food on the table.

By providing recent grants to two local organizations — Mill City Grows in Lowell, and Gaining Ground in Concord — the GLCF is improving community access to organic fruits and vegetables during the pandemic through its COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund grants.

“These incredible nonprofit partners aim to increase the quality and quantity of fresh produce available to emergency-food programs in Greater Lowell,” said Jay Linnehan, GLCF president and CEO. “The foundation recognizes the unprecedented need during this pandemic to address the food insecurity in our community and fund creative solutions to get healthy food options to residents.”

GLCF continues to target the lack of nutritious food, especially after its recent survey of Greater Lowell nonprofits revealed that one of their top three needs was improved food quality — specifically better-quality fresh produce, as well as culturally sensitive food options, explained Jennifer Aradhya, GLCF’s vice president of Marketing and Communication.

“Access to healthy, local food is as much about social justice as it is about health,” Aradhya said. “The two organizations that received these grants have a proven track record of providing nutritious options to under-served families who want a healthier lifestyle for their future.”

Feeding the hungry, as well as addressing the larger issues of unequal access to healthy food, are what drive Mill City Grows and Gaining Ground. Even though the pandemic has forced both organizations to modify operations, they are more committed than ever to growing and delivering organic fruits and vegetables to local food pantries, mobile markets, farm shares and individuals unable to leave their homes.

“Food pantries need sources of fresh produce,” said Jennifer Johnson, executive director of Gaining Ground, a 3-acre nonprofit organic farm in Concord. “If you think about it, most of the food gathered in church and school food-drives consists of canned goods. Too often, the produce donated to food pantries is past peak or damaged.”

According to Johnson, Gaining Ground donates all their “top-quality, fresh and beautiful” produce so the nonprofit organization does not have to make a distinction between what it sells and what it donates.

Founded more than 25 years ago, Gaining Ground normally uses volunteers to work its fields and hoop houses, explained Johnson. But last summer, no volunteers were allowed on site, due to COVID-19 health restrictions. Nevertheless, by hiring extra staff, the farm harvested and donated more than 127,000 pounds of fresh produce to organizations in Ayer, Bedford, Carlisle, Concord and Westford, as well as other outlets in greater Boston.

“That’s the equivalent to 509,000 individual servings,” Johnson said.

Serving those who work and live in Lowell, Mill City Grows was founded 10 years ago following a citywide food assessment, explained Executive Director Jessica Wilson.

“What we learned from that survey was that most people in Lowell know they should be eating five or more servings of fresh fruits and vegetables per day,” Wilson said. “But many don’t because they don’t live near stores that sell produce — or because prices for fresh fruits and vegetables are prohibitively high.

Wilson said the goal of Mill City Grows is to provide more fresh, affordable and Lowell-grown produce available to the community.

With four Lowell farms, plus 20 community and school gardens, Mill City Grows produced more than 40,000 pounds of fresh produce last year, despite mandated COVID-19 restrictions on volunteers. The group also distributes organic produce purchased from local farms and other growers around the state.

Through no-cost weekly farm shares, Mill City Grows offered fresh produce to 150 families last summer, and another 62 over the winter. More than 5,000 pounds of produce were donated directly to the Merrimack Valley Food Bank. The group also trains people to grow their own organic food in community plots and offers cooking classes to teach families how to incorporate more fresh produce into meals.

Wilson said there is a high rate of diabetes in Lowell, according to the Greater Lowell health Alliance. She added when immigrants come to the U.S., their diet changes radically — and not always for the better.

“It can be really challenging to see all sorts of unfamiliar produce in the store, while the fruits and vegetables you know from your home country are missing,” Wilson said. “But, what if the produce you know is available? And what if you have learned how to prepare these new varieties of fruits and vegetables?”

Mill City Grows varies what it grows every year, taking recommendations from the community.

“One year, we grew five different varieties of eggplant,” Wilson said. “Another year we grew a lot of daikon radish. In our hoop houses we grow ginger and turmeric, which are popular spices in Southeast Asian cuisine. If it can be grown in this climate, we do our best to make it happen.”

Graining Ground also alters what is planned based on community feedback, according to Johnson.

“Coronavirus hasn’t changed what we grow, but we always ask our partners what people like,” she said. “For example, our partners in Westford have requested radishes and cabbages, so we grow several different varieties of these vegetables and send those their way. Also, we don’t grow a lot of potatoes. Our partners have told us they can get good potatoes from other sources. What they want from us are our organic leafy greens.”