One day, in the first year of the Little Earth United Tribe neighborhood’s shared garden, Rooster showed up with ten tons of bananas. He was an area landscaper and he had the rotting bananas in a semi truck.
“I didn’t know what to do with that many bananas,” says Sindy, the de-facto manager of the three-year-old farm project that sits on a once-empty strip of grass and weeds abutting a fifteen-foot tan concrete wall that holds Minneapolis’ Highway 55. “But I’d heard potassium was good for soil, so for two weeks my cousin and I moved the bananas to the compost piles.”
“Then Rooster came back last year with pumpkins. Another truckload. He dumped them for our compost. I had the neighborhood kids – the ones who like to destroy things and break things – come help me demolish the pumpkins for the compost. They were busting them up all over the field. One was still in tact. I rolled it home and let my three kids carve it for Halloween.”
Sindy Wright, age 34, never farmed growing up. She never knew anything about vegetables or healthy eating. She grew up partly on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation and partly in Minneapolis. She’s Ojibwe like two-hundred families (and over 700 children) who live in Little Earth. It’s the only publicly subsidized housing project in the country that allows for preference to American Indians, a piece of legislation passed in the Reagan administration.
In 2009 Sindy joined a women’s empowerment group through the Minneapolis-based Women’s Environmental Institute (WEI). They met each Thursday and a central theme was healthy eating. They learned how to cook vegetables and how to shop for them. Sindy began buying more produce instead of canned and processed foods like she had been accustomed to all her life. Then the women began to learn about the benefits of organic methods and reducing their exposure to harmful chemicals in our foods. She began shopping at the food co-op. But as she looked for more healthy diet alternatives within reach of her home, she found them to be more and more expensive. The more healthy, the more pricey. It’s an unfortunate reality, despite a resurgence in farmers markets and healthy food stores around the country.
So Sindy worked with WEI to start a small garden in the abandoned strip of grass between her neighborhood of Little Earth and the I-94 concrete sound wall. It began with three rows and a hoop house that WEI helped build. Sindy started meeting people. Like Rooster. He brought bananas. Others, especially, kids came out to help her lay the soil. WEI brought Will Allen in to lead a composting workshop and teach Sindy and others how to use two-feet of wood chips, then two feet of organic compost to create growing mounds above the contaminated ground soil (former arsenic plant nearby).
In year two, the project grew to include a Mandela-style garden of circular plots. An outer ring of plots is for all the community to share while the inner ring has thirteen plots managed by seven neighborhood families. Sindy is the sort of godmother of it all. She taught herself and learned from others, one result of the shared knowledge being the newly planted Devil’s Claw bush. Its sticky stems and leaves catch pesty insects that might otherwise destroy the surrounding vegetables. Sindy learned that from an older woman in the community.
“Lots of people come in to help from other communities,” Sindy says. “When you get together like that in one place, you talk. You absorb and take it all in.”
Networking and sharing traditional skills and knowledge across the diverse cultural landscape of Minneapolis-St Paul has been the goal of WEI and Environmental Justice Advocates of Minnesota (EJAM) for the three-year CFP grant they received in 2010. WEI created a Food Justice Council to bring African-American, Latino, American Indian, and Hmong (exiled Laos resistance fighters) together to share their rich cultural heritage. Eight to nine collectives send one or a few representative members to an annual Food Justice Council training, like the one that brought Will Allen to teach about composting. Another one brought the Food Justice leaders to the White Earth project to learn about and share native seeds, run by American Indian, Winona LaDuke.
Harriet Oyera is another grower, mentor, and food advocate in Minneapolis. She came here from Uganda in 2005. Harriet had grown up on a farm and knew how to grow and care for livestock all her life. She gained a job with the Uganda Ministry of Agriculture. Then she left the country for political reasons, bringing her family and a wealth of agricultural knowledge – from hands-on growing to creating distribution networks on a national scale – to the low-income urban world of North Minneapolis.
The Women’s Environmental Institute and Environmental Justice Advocates of Minnesota (EJAM) discovered Harriet at the community garden she developed at Redeemer Lutheran Church. In just a few years, Harriet had created a thriving garden and learning space for the church community, especially the youth. They helped her organize cookouts with the produce and Harriet quickly began training the children in agricultural practices. Considering her deep community connections, ability to organize, and her wealth of traditional agricultural and cultural knowledge, WEI and EJAM hired her as a Food Justice Council community organizer.
WEI and EJAM received the CFP grant together. They had begun collaborating on farm-related stuff (more WEI’s strength, originally) in 2008-2009. WEI represented the south Minneapolis area and EJAM had its roots in the north of the city. The two non-profits share a farm campus an hour north of the Twin Cities in Chisago County. There they can work with farmers on a larger scale and, for the food justice councils, offer trainings such as Will Allen’s ROTC workshops and locally instructed courses in foraging and building root cellars.
Harriet meets with the nine other Food Justice Councils throughout the city. She knows Sindy. She regards her as a wonderful resource for American Indian knowledge about medicinal plants and other vegetables that grow well in the Ojibwe’s traditional lands. She might even adopt the Devil’s Claw pesticide method.
The various Food Justice groups meet monthly at different sites in the city to share growing successes and other stories. And the exchanges happen within the tight confines of the Little Earth community, as well. Sindy says a woman came to her one day asked what the plant with white bulb and green leaves was. Sindy said it must be the kohlrabi. The lady wanted to take some more home because her daughter, who’d never eaten a vegetable in her life, had come home munching a raw kohlrabi after visiting the garden. Sindy’s even used the garden to help her son deal with what they think is ADHD.
“I used to feed him chicken nuggets and Kool-Aid before school,” she says. “Then I learned about how that just breaks down into sugars and makes him go crazy. He still doesn’t like vegetables, but I blend some up for his macaroni and I don’t buy anymore Kool-Aid, sugary cereal, or chicken nuggets.”
In the garden’s third year, Sindy and the crew have expanded to include fruit trees – cherry, three types of apple – berries, even kiwi. They have a medicinal garden where they’ll grow traditional ceremonial plants like heirloom tobaccos. Sindy wants to keep growing it bigger and bigger and she’s glad the community is becoming increasingly involved. She wants to eventually go back to her reservation at Leech Lake and start a big farm there. For now, the people must drive an hour to buy canned and processed food at the nearest grocery store.
Harriet and Sindy are working with other leaders on the Food Justice Council’s current project, to gather the nutritional information for the food they grow. They will combine everything into a cookbook that shares traditional methods of cooking the wide range of dishes spread around the Twin Cities’ diverse ethnic palate.
The cross-cultural exchange, for Sindy, breaks down to the most basic sharing of knowledge: “I want to do this because I want to learn. If I don’t, my babies won’t learn and my grandkids might starve.”