Kids as young as 4 are carrying plants out of the back of cars into an empty lot in north Minneapolis with smiles on their faces. Other youngsters are digging into the soil with gardening tools and pounding in stakes.
The kids may not know it, but they're helping their community while learning life skills.
"The only way we learn as human beings is by exposure," said Michael Chaney, the founder of Project Sweetie Pie, a nonprofit that teaches kids to plant healthy, homegrown foods and sell them to vendors at places like the West Broadway Farmers Market.
He calls urban gardening projects like his the "gateway to all trades," since kids sell the things that they grow while learning about business.
Chaney said that today's youth are exposed to all kinds of "poison," such as drugs, alcohol and irresponsible sex. He hopes that Project Sweetie Pie can be the antidote to that.
Project Sweetie Pie is one of many urban gardening projects across the country. Cities from Chicago to the South Bronx have similar projects.
Urban gardening raises awareness for locally grown food. Getting food from the other side of the country or world requires a lot of energy and fuel to produce and transport.
Chaney, a member of eco-group Afro Eco, said one inspiration for Project Sweetie Pie was North Community High School's new horticulture and entrepreneurial programs.
Chaney reached out to young people, residents, elders and youth organizations around the metro to help put together the project. Nearly 30 organizations are involved with Project Sweetie Pie, Chaney said. He received a $1,000 grant from Northway Community Trust along with donations to the project.
Eco-City Minnesota sponsors one of the gardens and founder Immanuel Jones said the groups share the goal of raising awareness for the value of organic and sustainable food.
"It's important for kids to not eat processed foods because they're usually high in sodium," Jones said. "If you take your food straight out of the ground, it's more healthy because of all the nutrients."
On June 25, Chaney organized volunteers of all ages at 1422 Oliver Av. N. to plant the "Olive Garden" in an empty lot that he co-owns with his brother. They carried plants such as peppers, squash, lettuce and sweet potatoes out of the back of cars. Chaney coordinated while others tilled and plowed the soil.
Some volunteers are interested in the business side of the project while others, like a boy named Keshaun Leuzzo-Mapp, said that he thinks planting will help make north Minneapolis a better place.
Project Sweetie Pie volunteers have planted several gardens throughout the Twin Cities. Each garden was sponsored by an organization that provided most of the plants in the garden. When the plants are sold, 100 percent of the profits go back to sponsors.
Rose McGee, of Deep Roots Gourmet Desserts in Minneapolis, will buy sweet potatoes from the gardens. McGee, also a member of Afro Eco, uses them to make sweet potato pies.
"This is an excellent way to help students hone in on how to take products they've grown and sell them to the market," she said.
In a generation of "going green," Project Sweetie Pie is only one of the projects in Minneapolis that is emphasizing protecting the environment. Other urban gardening projects include the Youth Farm and Market Project in the Hawthorne neighborhood in north Minneapolis.
Chaney's vision is to bring a community together to work toward the same goal and teach kids essential life skills.
Chaney said that he hopes the number of youth involved in Project Sweetie Pie grows. He wants eventually to pay community members to help maintain the planted gardens.
"I believe that we're planting the seeds of change," he said. "I hope what resonates through the community is that the future is in our hands."
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