Gloucester has a lot to thank Wall Street greed for.
When the banks and the brokers brought the country's economy to its knees in 2008, one local couple, Lara LePionka and Stevens Brosnihan, decided to economize by growing their own vegetables. What began as an patch of garden in their front yard took root and grew into an agent for positive change of inestimable value to the city, particularly its low-income families: The Backyard Growers Program (BYG).
Now digging in for its fourth gardening season, the program has grown in tandem with what LePionka calls "an octopus of partner programs" into a city-wide network of well over 60 edible gardens, not just in backyards, but in parks, housing developments, schools and elsewhere.
This is week two of the program's two-week spring "training" sessions, and 60 urban farmers — up from eight in just four years — are busy getting their nails dirty and their thumbs green. This Saturday they'll gather at 9 a.m. at The Open Door food pantry for a day of hands-on indoor and outdoor workshops that will result in finished drafts of garden plans for all participating families.
LePionka's family, which includes daughters Willa, a West Parish School third-grader, and preschooler Beatrix — "as in Potter" — would be enough to fill most mother's plates. But LePionka is the kind of earth mother and earth mover it takes to achieve all that she has.
"When we saw the effect that first frontyard garden had on our neighborhood," says LePionka, "how it brought our neighbors together and excited them, I knew this was what I wanted to be doing."
LePionka, an artist, was also a veteran grant writer for nonprofit groups, including the Cape Ann Farmers Market. By 2010, she'd secured initial funding to launch a pilot backyard gardening program with a handful of her Beacon Street neighbors.
"The 2010 pilot program," she says, "had very particular objectives. We were looking to see how it changed things, and it turned out that it changed things all over the place."
And all for the better.
The side benefits went way beyond the expected goals of economizing and nutrition. Participants, each allotted a 4-by-8 foot raised bed, not only grew a seemingly endless supply of fresh, premium organic produce, but a huge sense of achievement and pride. They loved the learning, the socializing. They got fitter, leaner, healthier in every way. It brought families together, community together. Expanded horizons, relationships.
And, importantly, the kids were crazy about it.
With the support of the North Shore Food Project — without which, LePionka stresses "nothing would be possible — the program moved into its 2011 growing season.
An expanded core group of 20 gardeners went to work. With equipment, material, technical expertise, mentoring and encouragement by the Food Project, new beds were planted, and new relationships with new working partners widened and deepened.
By this year, those "relationships" have grown to includecommercial sponsors Timberline, FoodCorp, the City of Gloucester, Get Fit Gloucester. The program's outreach has grown to include Gloucester's five elementary schools, McPherson Park, and, importantly, a growing relationship with The Open Door food pantry.
Julie Fontaine, executive director of The Open Door and herself an early pioneer of urban farming for the city's low-income families, will co-sponsor Saturday's training sessions at The Open Door.
And, with the sponsorship, mentoring and equipment of the food pantry, Gloucester's backyard gardeners will get back to growing more than just gardens.
Anyone looking for more information about or to volunteer with the Backyard Growers Program may visit www.capeannfarmersmarket.org or contact LePionka at 978-317-8025 or email@example.com.
Joann Mackenzie may be contacted at 978-283-7000x3457 or firstname.lastname@example.org.