Cultivating change

From the Ground Up project is all about growing and sharing healthy food

Jenny Lowrey is on a mission to improve people’s health through good, wholesome food.

Jenny Lowrey is on a mission to improve people’s health through good, wholesome food.

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Within 10 minutes of arriving at Kentfield community garden off First Avenue in Chico, a man handed me two plump, green tomatoes. “Those will be good to eat in three days!” volunteer Bruce Matthews said.

It was a fitting welcome, seeing as the garden—the current headquarters of the new local, volunteer-run nonprofit From the Ground Up Farms—serves primarily to “feed the community and teach them how to grow things themselves.” That’s the mission of the organization’s founder and executive director, Jenny Lowrey. While it’s her goal to educate others about self-sufficient farming methods, Lowrey admits that gardening is a relatively new passion.

“My background is in corporate management, and I spent 15 years working in chemical agriculture,” she said. “But I couldn’t support what they were doing to the land anymore. Now I work at a nonprofit growing organic food and I’m sure they laugh at me.”

Not only has her work space changed dramatically, but Lowrey made another significant transformation that served as the catalyst for From the Ground Up Farms.

“Three years ago I was 270 pounds, on 15 medications, had four heart attacks, diabetes and cancer. I had to make the decision if I wanted to live or die,” she said.

Spending time on her Concow garden property, she learned healthier diet practices, which reduced many of her ailments. “Working in the garden was a healing process for me. Picking my own food and going inside to cook it was wonderful,” she said.

Inspired by her transformation, Lowrey’s son, Chico musician Hap Hathaway, suggested she start an organization. In 2013, Lowrey filed for 501 C3 charity status, and FTGUF was planted.

The Concow property became the first official garden affiliated with the organization, with many local residents volunteering time in exchange for produce. “There’s a huge food security problem in that area. People don’t have access to safe food,” Lowrey said. Looking to add locations around Chico, she stumbled upon an existing quarter-acre garden lot off Kentfield Road, owned by Todd Hall and Molly Stokes.

“Jenny was very persistent. She told me what she wanted to do and I was all for it—I basically handed over the keys,” Hall said.

With the help of about 18 volunteers, plus many local donations, the Kentfield garden currently flourishes with winter vegetables. Relatively new to Chico, Lowrey has depended on the strength of word of mouth and her own voice in spreading the news about her organization.

“I’d go to the farmers’ markets and talk to people with organic starts,” Lowrey said. “I’m not bashful. I told people, ‘We need help.’”

Walking around the garden, Lowrey smiled as she pointed out the rows of cabbage, broccoli, brussels sprouts, lettuce, tomatoes and kale—much of which was gifted from local community members, like Nancy Schleiger of Native Springs Nursery, and Sherri Scott from GRUB CSA Farm.

While donations sustain the growing garden’s productivity, it was the thousand dollar grant awarded by The Pollination Project that initially supported FTGUF’s overhead costs. The Pollination Project, also a nonprofit organization, gives $1,000 seed grants daily to national and international projects promoting social change.

“The reviewers of Jenny’s application thought it was a model example of a community garden project,” explained James West, grant coordinator for The Pollination Project. “Her vision addresses the difficulties that so many face in obtaining access to fresh food.” The Pollination Project was the first grant proposal Lowrey had ever written. She now has two more completed and “two more in the works!”

Lowrey hopes to have four more gardens established in Chico and Durham by spring 2015, particularly in areas that can serve low-income residents. With additional funding and garden space, Lowrey’s long-term goals include donating food to local shelters and schools. But she’s especially excited about creating workshops for the community.

“It’s all about education,” she said. “We want to teach gardening practices, and also how to cook and preserve your food—how to make it last.”

For now, it’s the produce stand at the Kentfield property that provides locals with fresh food. Initially set up by Todd Hall, the stand was established on the honor system—take the food you need, and leave an optional donation. Last year’s donations brought in over $1,000, which Hall and his family donated to the Torres Community Shelter. Now Lowrey runs the stand, keeping baskets of fresh produce—picked straight from the garden—available daily.

“It’s amazing to see what they’ve done with the garden in the last couple months, and the neighborhood loves it. We never could keep it going through winter, but now it looks beautiful,” Hall said.

As the afternoon wrapped up, Lowrey and fellow volunteers prepared to hand off more of those green tomatoes (and some red ones, too).

For Lowrey, it’s the personal reminder of improved health that keeps her motivated in the efforts to grow her organization.

“From changing the way I’ve eaten, I’ve lost nearly 140 pounds. I’m no longer diabetic. And nearly all the other volunteers here once had health problems that have been improved through diet,” she said. “I feel morally obligated to share with others what I learned the hard way.”