On a sunny midsummer day in a south Minneapolis backyard, a handful of people were harvesting garlic for a meal to be served at a nearby American Indian church.
A few steps away, eggplant and exotic squash were ripening on the vine, almost ready for the kitchen of a neighborhood Bangladeshi/Indian restaurant.
The people picking the vegetables, weeding and tending the crops weren’t members of the church or restaurant employees. They were young volunteers rounded up from a variety of local faith communities.
Whose garden is this, anyway?
A lot of diverse people and organizations have a stake in the Gandhi Mahal Interfaith Garden, an experimental plot in the Corcoran neighborhood.
Growing food is just one of the ambitious garden’s lofty missions, according to its coordinator, Claire Baglien. It’s also a place where people committed to food justice, faith and climate change can work together on common goals, she said.
“It’s a space to connect the dots.”
The unusual garden, in the backyard of a duplex, started a few years ago when students affiliated with Higher Education Consortium for Urban Affairs partnered with Gandhi Mahal restaurant to grow produce for use in its kitchen. The landlord of the duplex offered the yard for the experimental venture.
The second season, Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light, a nonprofit group focused on climate justice, got involved with helping nurture the garden.
“A garden symbolizes what a faith community is — connections, caring for the planet and caring for life in urban areas where people don’t have the opportunity to grow food or be in nature,” said Baglien, an employee of Minnesota Interfaith Power Light, which organizes the volunteers.
Getting a good meal’
Last year, First Nations Kitchen, a ministry for indigenous people based at All Saints Episcopal Indian Mission, became a stakeholder in the garden.
“It’s all about food justice,” said Robert “Rev” Two Bulls, pastor of the mission, which serves a free dinner featuring indigenous, organic food every Sunday to “people living on the margin — the homeless, drug users, chronic alcoholics. Everybody deserves a good meal.”
The garden’s crop mix reflects its two primary constituencies. First Nations Kitchen gets most of the tomatoes, onions, garlic, herbs and heirloom bean varieties, which are augmented with buffalo meat, walleye from Red Lake, wild rice and other indigenous foods to create the Sunday meals.
Most of the eggplant, Bangladeshi squash and herbs used in Indian cuisine go to the Gandhi Mahal restaurant.
“Each crop represents the community,” said Baglien.
Twice a month, on Sunday nights, the garden becomes a community gathering spot, with guests at the First Nations Kitchen dinner invited to “open garden nights” where they can talk and share interests with others.
“One guy reads poetry. It gives them a stage,” said Two Bulls.
In addition to producing food today, the garden is also an exercise in permaculture and regenerative agriculture, according to Baglien.
Once an arsenic cleanup site, the contaminated soil was removed, then replaced with 18 inches of sterile fill that lacked nutrients to adequately nourish plants.
At first, “nothing grew,” said Baglien. The garden volunteers have started composting to restore beneficial bacteria and fungi to the soil, to better support growing plants and to improve the soil’s ability to store carbon, which is where the climate justice piece comes in. “This is a process,” Baglien said.
This growing season, two more organizations have gotten involved with the garden.
Teens involved with ThreeSixty Journalism, a nonprofit program of the University of St. Thomas, have been spending time in the garden interviewing those involved and producing video and print stories about it.
One of those teens is Genesis Buckhalton, a recent St. Louis Park High School graduate who plans to study journalism at Drake University this fall. She and her summer camp partner chose the garden out of several possible stories to cover. “For me, personally, it stuck out,” she said. “I like gardens, I like the idea, and I wanted to learn.”
Funding to help teen journalists tell the story of the garden and bring it to a wider audience was provided by Blue Cross Blue Shield’s Center for Prevention and its “Healthy Eating Success Stories” initiative.
“There are so many examples of healthy eating you don’t hear about,” said Christian Knights, communications and advocacy principal with the center.
“What we like is that they’re creating healthy choices and availability for people who don’t have access [to healthful food] who are in urban food deserts. This is a way to address that — and an engagement point to bringing folks together to talk about healthy food.”