Haverhill YMCA Inaugurates Hydroponic Container Garden at City’s Gateway Academy

Anna Jaques Hospital President Glenn D. Focht speaks in front of the Freight Farm. (WHAV News photograph.)

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The first YMCA Freight Farm in the country was formally inaugurated Wednesday at Haverhill’s Gateway Academy.

The 40 by 8-foot shipping container, adorned in bright colors with the message “The Y Feeds Kids” on the side, is a collaboration between the Haverhill Y and Haverhill Public Schools. Inside the hydroponic farm, behind the school’s new location at the former St. James School, students learn the origin of food and healthy eating options. YMCA Regional Executive Director Tracy Fuller thanked sponsor Beth Israel Lahey Health, the city and Haverhill school Superintendent Margaret Marotta for not only welcoming the concept, but going the extra mile to make it work.

“I’m appreciative that Dr. Marotta did not ask if we could find a school to place the Freight Farm, but which school would be the best location. I am so grateful for the partnership we have with Haverhill Public Schools,” she said.

She called the farm “a teaching tool to help students learn about local food systems, sustainable agriculture, biology, chemistry, business and other STEM topics.

Fuller said Beth Israel Director of Community Relations Christine Healey kicked off the project when she asked the Haverhill YMCA if the organization was interested in a Freight Farm. Beth Israel, which also owns Anna Jaques Hospital of Newburyport and Haverhill Medical Offices, paid $165,000 for the farm, which covered its $150,000 expense and part of installation. Electrical service at the school was another $30,000, which was covered by city money secured by Community Development Division Director Andrew K. Herlihy.

Fuller noted Freight Farm Manager Caroline Beaton readied the farm for the school’s Farm to Table Program and Inaugural “Seeds To Grow” licensed after school program. Children measured, transplanted and learned about parts of a plant and, by Sept. 25, she and students harvested 150 pounds of butter bibb and romaine lettuce. She said vegetables will be shared among the community through the school system, families of the YMCA and food banks and pantries.

New Anna Jaques Hospital President Glenn D. Focht said he and his family endured food insecurity when he was growing up in a rural area of Pennsylvania. He noted recent data shows “More than 20% of children are in households where they have food insecurity and, in many cases, that’s worse now than during the pandemic.”

Haverhill Mayor James J. Fiorentini, who serves as chairman of the School Committee said teaching children about healthy living is important because Haverhill has “an epidemic of diabetes.”

YMCA of the North Shore President and CEO Chris Lovasco acknowledged a 10-year waiting list for affordable YMCA housing, 900 kids waiting for childcare programs and a “growing gap” between what the Y is raising and giving away in scholarships. Despite the need, Lovasco explained why the Y strives to do more.

“We could show our community our commitment to mission—that there is no project, small or large, that we have an opportunity to get involved with that we won’t. We can deepen our community understanding that we are local always,” he explained.

The container garden will have continuing costs for staffing, seeds, nutrients and materials. Fuller said the YMCA will seek grants and undertake other fundraising efforts to cover the expenses.

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