10/15/2012 7:00 AM
By Guy Steucek Massachusetts Correspondent
LOWELL, Mass. — Some living in downtown Lowell may know little of the Big E and Topsfield Fair, but after a Saturday afternoon and evening at the Harvest Festival, they know the joy of such an event.
Lydia Sisson and Francey Slater spent the spring and summer introducing inner-city families to urban agriculture through an organization they founded called Mill City Grows. They wanted the “neighborhood to celebrate the success of the season with a harvest festival,” Sisson said.
The festival took place at the Rotary Club Park, the location of the garden plots and a skateboard site. The event featured products produced by the local urban farmers and by a variety of youth-oriented organizations.
Some attending the festival learned about it from a flier; others noticed the commotion in their neighborhood and came over to investigate.
A builder who was renovating an adjacent house stopped by with his crew for a bowl of green chili and remarked how delicious it was. The turnout was impressive for the community-building event.
The green chili and cornbread muffins were served at a booth run by United Teen Equity Center (UTEC). Members of the organization made the food in their industrial kitchen.
UTEC’s mission is “to ignite and nurture the ambition of Lowell’s most disconnected young people to trade violence and poverty for social and economic success.”
Denise Harding, who has been with UTEC for seven months and helped prepare and sell the festival food, said she has sharpened her culinary skills and would like to some day own a restaurant.
The festival offered plenty to keep young children entertained. One station helped children use apples and potatoes to make artistic prints. At another, the Rotary Club had plenty of pumpkins to paint. If you wanted to get your face painted, there was a booth for that, too.
The very young could dive into piles of straw in search of hidden treasures, the proverbial “needle in the haystack.”
All activities were supported by the festival sponsors and offered free of charge.
One booth provided samples of soup made from ingredients produced in the urban garden plots. Another provided popcorn, not a local fare. Children were encouraged to help make cider, which was distributed to all.
Some booths offered vegetables and other food items for sale, including “solid sin” from Sweet Lydia’s, a local confectionery (and no relation to Lydia Sisson).
Booths on natural and safe cleaning products, solar ovens, veggie-fueled transportation, and quick and healthy cooking on a budget rounded out the educational sector.
At sunset, visitors settled in for the “Good Food” film festival, a collection of short films on food and sustainability.
The community participation was most satisfying to Sisson and Slater.
“The outreach to the neighborhood was enlightening,” Sisson said. “There where young boys who volunteered to help with the work of setting up the festival and taking it down that amazed us. They must have worked at least 10 hours that day. Watching young people in the neighborhood and gardeners interact and seeing the abandoned space in the city come alive was most rewarding.”