“I’m the resource queen,” says Scelena, a large woman with a tattoo on her shoulder exposed beneath a tank-top and between the long braids of her hair. “They’ve got programs for kids out here. You just gotta find them.”
Out here is North Minneapolis, the city’s most drastic low-income zone with a mix of African-Americans, Latinos, whites, East Africans, and Hmong.
Next to Scelena sits Amphavanh, a southeast Asian immigrant who speaks fluent English. She lives in an apartment above a store in a really bad part of North Minneapolis. So bad, she says, that she can’t let her fourteen year-old daughter ride the bus to the grocery store. Another mother nods. She doesn’t let her young teen ride the bus, either. “And she’s bigger than I am,” the mom says.
These five women are seated at a table in a church basement on Emerson Ave in North Minneapolis. They’re here for dinner and dialogue. Their children work with the Youth Farm and Market Project’s (YFMP) new garden at Nellie Stone Johnson pre-K through 8th school, a YFMP expansion project that is a direct result of a CFP grant.The children have been cooking stir-fry chicken, rice with squash and zucchini from the garden, fresh fruit, and a peanut sauce. After the dinner is prepared, the participants split into three groups at three tables: children, teens, and adults. Each table has a leader from “Community Cooks,” a program of the community organization, Appetite for Change (AFC), begun by Michelle Horovitz. The leaders, Tasha, Princess, and Jesse, are residents of North Minneapolis. They come from the same place as the kids and mothers. AFC partnered with YFMP to conduct this dinner and dialogue in the fashion that AFC has been developing Community Cooks since it began with a pilot program in 2011.
So before everyone digs into the food that the children have been tending to all summer, everyone talks about food issues. The young kids are asked what they’d buy if they were given money and sent to the grocery store. These kids have been at Youth Farm and Market long enough to know that tomatoes, green beans, broccoli, onions, apples, oranges are the things they should be eating. Jesse writes their answers on a white poster sheet tacked to the wall.
At the adult table, Princess passes around a sheet of paper with an illustration of two meals (plus their price, and nutrient contents) to feed a family of four:
- McDonald’s $27.89
2 Big Macs
1 six-piece chicken nuggets
Fat: 37 grams
Carbs: 123 grams
Protein: 23 grams
- Grocery store $13.78
Fat: 39 grams
Carbs: 80 grams
Protein: 67 grams
As the mothers look at the sheet, Princess continues, asking what the women do to find healthy, affordable food at grocery stores. Someone mentions dried mangos. Another mother wonders where you can get those. Someone says Wal-Mart sells them cheap. Another woman says you can dry them yourself for cheaper. One mother says she grew up in Brazil and they ate all their meat and veggies fresh. Her daughter is big, she says. Really big and she has asthma. She’s worried she might get diabetes. But they have a garden in the backyard and they work together in it. She makes it fun for them.
Amphavanah talks about living in an apartment above a storefront. She can’t grow anything. Years ago she had the chance to get a box for growing veggies, but she didn’t know how to, so she passed it up. Now she says when she can move into a house, her daughter Mela, can teach her how to grow produce like she learned at YFMP.
Before the meeting wraps up and the women join their children around the pushed-together tables over colorful plates of healthy, fresh food prepared by the kids, Princess shares an anecdote:
“My daughter is six. She’s heavy. I tell her we don’t have good health insurance so she’ll understand why we’re trying to eat healthy and be preventative. We’ll go to McDonalds occasionally. But we’ll split a Happy Meal.”
“We recently went in to the doctor for a check-up and he told her she’s heavy, in the 100th percentile. He said she needs to not be eating junk food and fast food like McDonald’s. He says it’s not healthy and it can make her sick.”
“In the car on the way home, my daughter was a little upset. She said, ‘If McDonald’s are bad for us, why do they have so many in our country? Why do they have them in my neighborhood.’ My daughter, she’s quick. They pick up on these contradictory messages (of the health voice and the advertising one).”
Youth Farm and Market Project works in five neighborhoods throughout Minneapolis. They operate gardens in each community and they partner with other city organizations and agencies to employ youth ages nine to twenty-four in leadership positions. Their model is similar to another CFP recipient, Rural Resources of Greeneville, TN. Both organizations seek to create long-term programming that can reach young kids and follow through with them into their late teens, and, in the case of YFMP, early twenties.
YFMP calls it “Progressive Program Modeling” as espoused in the Youth Program Quality Assessment model. So someone like Mela, at age fourteen, can begin with the garden program at her elementary school. She then moves into her current role as Project Lead. YFMP’s Hawthorne Neighborhood garden (located at Mela’s Nellie Stone Johnson Middle School and at the St. Olaf Senior Living Center) has five Project Leads. They work as paid interns (paid through the city’s Step Up youth employment program) four days a week during the summer and they continue with 160 hours throughout the school year (in return for a twice-paid stipend). They work at the farm, manage the weekly market, attend other community organization meetings and events, and they lead classes in the school and at the farm.
Finally, the youth can evolve, as they enter high school and beyond, into more responsibilities as Farm Stewards. Currently four Farm Stewards work with YFMP in Minneapolis and St Paul. It’s basically a small-business incubator program, exposing the stewards to the operations of a food-production business in urban agriculture.
Back in the church basement, the kids and their mothers finish up the meal. Princess brings out the large white posters covered in neat rows of red-ink notes taken by the discussion leaders. Infants sit on mothers’ laps and one lightly taps on the piano in the back, watched by a YFMP volunteer. The young kids share what they talked about, followed by the teens, and the moms, in a sort of new, vital food chain.
Michelle knows that the discussion, the sharing of local knowledge, is often the part that gets left out of many food-security iniatives. But connecting the farm-related work and learning from the kids to the parents and then going a step further to encourage a place for parents to share concerns and ideas is a powerful step toward a sustainable solution to lack of access to fresh food.
North Minneapolis, like many other food desert regions throughout the country, has been studied over and over as the wave of planning and assessment builds within the food-security world. But too often those studies never make it back to the people who need it most – the people being studied. So all the info discussed at YFMP and at other Community Cooks meetings will be recorded and presented at the end of the Appetite for Change ground-level assessment. Everyone who participated in the Community Cooks dinners will be invited to join for a final celebration and discussion of the issues uncovered thanks to the participation of the parents and the children. Sometimes the passing of knowledge moves in reverse. The more years YFMP has to work with a consistent group of youth participants, the more the knowledge of food, where to get it, and how to cook it, moves through the youth and into the community.