Sara never imagined she’d be working in a garden in Duluth, Minnesota. The garden sits behind the colorful, recently built Hope VI housing development, Harbor Highlands. It overlooks downtown Duluth and a curve of flat shoreline that arcs southeast against the steel-gray water of Lake Superior. The steep escarpment of Lake Superior’s western shoreline here makes Duluth feel like the edge of the world. The off-on summer rain has left the early morning air heavy and gray.
One can only hope it was sunny and breezy when Sara first arrived here from her hometown of Alexandria, MN, four-and-a-half hours away. It’s easy to imagine her in one of those cartoons where the character runs headlong from danger, glancing over her shoulder, and turning to look ahead just in time to come to a screeching, heels-skidding-in-the-dirt stop at Duluth’s steep edge of land and water.
Sara was that character in 2010. She and her then-nine-year-old son and three-year-old daughter bolted out of a domestic violence situation in Alexandria and headed to Duluth. It seemed a safe distance. Sara knew no one in town and she had no job, since she’d had to leave her employment as a hotel desk clerk when she escaped Alexandria.
They stayed in a domestic violence shelter for two months before moving into the Salvation Army’s transitional housing, which offers a two-year stay in conjunction with life-skills training. Sara met her housing advocate each week. They’d set goals and parameters to train Sara how not to fall into the same domestic violence trap in the future. Sara accomplished her goals efficiently, completing the program in ten months, so she could move her family into their own apartment with rent support from Section 8 (Sara pays 30% of her income toward rent and Section 8 covers the rest).
Sara discovered Community Action Duluth as a resource to help with transitional employment and she was assigned an “ally,” someone who could act as a mentor, advocate, and goal-setter for her. She took classes in “Budget Management,” “Common Sense,” and “Getting Ahead.” She started taking classes toward a degree in human services at the community college. Then she heard about the Seeds of Success (SOS) transitional employment opportunity. It would mean working with the gardens that SOS manages around Duluth.
The timing worked out perfectly. As her college classes ended, she moved into the SOS job, which runs through the summer. She works alongside other young and old men and women. They manage the gardens and the CSA program they call Neighborhood Produce. It’s an experimental version of a CSA in which they bundle the produce into a weekly share, but sell it to anyone at the week’s market. Thanks to an AARP subsidy, SOS can sell the shares, valued at fifteen dollars, to low-income seniors for five dollars.
The low-income emphasis on seniors is partly the result of the USDA's Community Food Project (CFP) planning grant Community Action Duluth received in order to fund the Duluth Urban Acres Coalition, a project that evaluates the barriers to healthy food access for Duluth’s low-income residents. Transportation proved to be a major problem, especially for seniors, so the CSA program aims to address that.
Food skills and knowledge also proved to be another issue, as is common throughout the nation’s food-insecure communities. Sara remembers trying to make a garden a few years ago, back in Alexandria. She didn’t really know what she was doing and it never really worked out. Now she’s got the skills to grow a variety of vegetables. She’s learned, from taking home shares from the gardens, that the lettuce they grow only lasts a week in her fridge, unlike the three weeks she can get out of grocery-store lettuce. That tells her something’s amiss with the conventional lettuce. She watches documentaries now about the good, bad, and ugly of our nation’s food options.
After this summer’s employment season ends, Sara will head back to college, aiming for a 2014 degree. She’ll get a different job, but she’ll know where to find the Seeds of Success garden near her house and she plans to have a garden of her own once she gets her degree and starts working as a social worker in the field of domestic violence.