For Lara Lepionka, there is one goal: having the message of healthy eating and local growing take root.
Like most big ideas, Backyard Growers was born of necessity.
It was 2008 and Lara Lepionka’s family, like countless others, felt the sudden, debilitating hammer of the Great Recession. Suddenly, luxuries were out the window and daily necessities took on a level of never-before-seen paucity.
“Like our neighbors and so many others across the nation, it didn’t feel like we had one iota of control over our finances,” she says. “We decided to do what we could control: grow our own food.”
So she rolled up her sleeves and stuck her hands in the dirt, seeding, watering and cultivating her own food from a small raised-bed garden in her Gloucester backyard. She admits that her agricultural career didn’t start with a green thumb out of the gate—“I basically Googled it”—but after enough trial and error and self-learning, her garden became the envy of their hamlet. Neighbors knocked on Lara’s doors, eager to glean gardening tips.
That’s when the (plant) bulb went on over her head: here was a perfect opportunity to make a difference in her community. Basic word-of-mouth gave way to a more codified initiative to spread the love of DIY agronomy; in 2010, Backyard Growers launched as a program of the Cape Ann Farmers’ Market.
With capacity-building support from The Food Project the program flourished, and in 2015 Backyard Growers became a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization serving low-to-moderate income families in Gloucester and children in the district schools. Today, Backyard Growers serves over 130 families, operates seven community gardens and spreads the word of gardening and healthy eating in eight Gloucester schools.
“In Gloucester, one out of six of our residents use The Open Door food pantry,” she says. “And 44% of kids are eligible for federal food and reduced lunch. Four of our census tracks are considered poverty tracks or food deserts.”
Women in Action, the women’s leadership group of the North Shore United Way, has been there since the beginning, helping to scale up the organization with funding when it first started and lending its name and advocacy to fortify its position in the community. Additionally, Backyard Growers has made appearances at Women in Action events.
“They’ve been with us throughout the process,” Lara says. “And it goes beyond just being a funder. United Way and Women in Action have been more of a partner and a collaborator in our shared goals. It’s been a meaningful relationship.”
Backyard Growers is flourishing, cultivating a strong relationship with the school system and food service program, which allows the message of healthy eating and home growing to spread to kids. Lara has seen her staff grow from two (herself and a FoodCorps service member) to four, aided by the addition of AmeriCorps MassLIFT service members as well as a legion of like-minded volunteers, all motivated by the same vision of a healthy, self-reliant Gloucester.