Jennifer Brooks

Your community garden is a battleground.

The Minnesota Senate dug into community gardens Thursday night, debating whether vegetables have a place in the $11.2 billion Health and Human Services (HHS) budget.

“This is how we’re spending taxpayer money, instead of helping the sick, or taking care of the elderly or the disabled,” said Senate Minority Leader David Hann. He offered an amendment to the HHS budget that would have blocked the Statewide Health Improvement Program, or SHIP, from awarding grants for community gardens.

Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said he had no beef with veggies, but thought there were better ways for the state to spend taxpayer dollars. Community garden grants are a sliver of the $15 million SHIP budget, but Hann singled them out as an example of “frivolous” state spending.

“This may sound funny. This may sound laughable, but there are dollars we are spending in the HHS bill … that we award to suburban folks to grow vegetables,” he said.

“There are better things you can do with that money. … Don’t give it to people to grow vegetables.”

Senate Democrats roared to the defense of community gardens.

“It’s not funny,” said Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee. He noted that his own son was getting ready to volunteer on a community garden in New Orleans’ 10th Ward. “When you get kids together and teach them what it means to dig in the dirt and grow some of the food that they eat, it can have lifelong effects.”

Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, DFL-Minneapolis, talked about recent immigrants she works with in Minneapolis, people who were farmers in their homelands and now live in low-income apartments with no access to green space.

“They cannot afford this food in our grocery stores. Actually, eating healthy is very expensive,” she said. “These community gardens are not the back yards of middle-income families in suburban communities.”

Neighborhoods don’t just start community gardens for fun, said Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, noting that many are located in urban “food deserts,” where fresh produce is sometimes a long car or bus trip away.

“People are consuming fresh vegetables. Not only does that help their budget, but it helps their diet,” he said. “People are really doing great things with these dollars.”

According to Minnesota Department of Health figures, the state spent about $89,354 over the past two years to help start community gardens around Minnesota — less than 1 percent of the SHIP program budget. Most of those gardens were created with a blend of funding from the state and local community groups.

The Health Department pitches community gardens as a way to promote healthy eating, particularly among children and people who live in neighborhoods without easy access to grocery stores with decent produce sections.

Hann wasn’t convinced, but the majority of senators were. His amendment — like a similar proposal offered in the House earlier in the week — was voted down. The HHS budgets move to conference committee and then back to the House and Senate for final votes before the 2013 session wraps up in mid-May.

Coming up

The Senate is expected to vote on its omnibus tax bill Monday. The bill includes tax increases on higher-income Minnesotans, on cigarettes and some clothing, as well as an effort to lower property tax rates.

Tweet of the week

State Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul (@johnlesch): Hour 8 on Tax Bill debate. I was out sick the day in college where they taught that if you said the same thing over and over it became true.