Lowell, Massachusetts. The name is synonymous with the Industrial Revolution—not only its remarkable achievements, but the darkest chapters of its abuses: exploitation of children, bloody battles for workers’ rights, and the concentration of wealth in the hands of the owner class.

If you haven’t checked in with Lowell since high school American History, you might be surprised. Like a lot of American rust-belt cities, Lowell still struggles to provide an economic base for its working-class population. But residents, area nonprofits, and city government have collaborated on a number of initiatives to help the city transition to a post-industrial economy.

One such group is Mill City Grows, a nonprofit formed in 2011 with a mission focused specifically on food justice. It’s an apt undertaking for an organization located in the cradle of the Industrial Revolution. Like yesterday’s textile mills, today’s food system has been industrialized to the detriment of both farm workers and food consumers.

Mill City Grows takes a multifaceted approach to battling these inequalities: They helped establish and manage a half-dozen community gardens; they support three urban farms; they organize a variety of educational programs for all ages; and they operate a mobile market that brings fresh produce where it’s needed most in the city.

Children in a classroom gather around a chef and observe him preparing a dish for them to sample.

Youth cooking class organized by Mill City Grows

Volunteer Jane Wright harvests Kale in the early morning for Mill City Grows at their urban farm in Lowell, Mass.

Volunteer Jane Wright harvests Kale in the early morning for Mill City Grows at their urban farm in Lowell, Mass. (Winslow Townson for The Boston Globe; used with permission from Mill City Grows)

Now the organization is launching a new initiative aimed at training college students in intensive, sustainable urban agriculture. The program is a collaboration with the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, and includes an energy-efficient greenhouse, native plant gardens, and a number of new urban farm plots. The program is designed to give UMass students a hands-on classroom to learn about all aspects of urban food production, including community nutrition, early childhood education, business planning, marketing—and of course, farm skills.

Programs like this one are vital in the effort to transform our food system. With a growing percentage of the U.S. population concentrated in cities and suburbs, urban farm programs play an important role in building a sustainable, local food system.

Youth in the garden take notes on the lettuce their observing growing.

Moreover, as manicured city greenspaces (or vacant lots) are transformed into food-producing farms and gardens, everyday people get involved and learn about the sources of their sustenance—and the more they know, says Mill City co-director Francey Slater, the more they are engaged in shifting the food system toward more sustainable practices. “We connect people of all ages and backgrounds with food and the act of growing,” says Slater. “For some, it’s a new experience and for others it’s deeply ingrained. Either way, the process of planting, nurturing, and consuming the fruits of your labor is transformative.”

Check out some other organizations that are transforming lives through urban gardening and agriculture here!

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Organic Valley is committed to supporting its local communities and is happy to sponsor Mill City Grows for its impact on the lives of community members.