Mothers and children from the Phillips neighborhood showed up early at the Urban Ventures Farm in south Minneapolis to wait for free, fresh produce under umbrellas next to the Midtown Greenway.
The spot just west of Portland Avenue was sunny and quiet. Cyclists hummed past on the two-lane bike trail. Gary Ross dropped green beans in a crate on a shelf. He delivers the vegetables grown on vines — squash, green beans, cucumbers, cabbage — from Urban Ventures’ 4-acre farm in Lakeville, which he manages.
“All the big stuff,” he said.
The little outdoor food shelf, which looks and feels more like a farmers market, is seeing a lot of need in south Minneapolis under the cumulative effects of the pandemic, recession and disruption from riots after the police killing of George Floyd.
Charitable organizations, food banks and churches from around the region have focused on this area of the city with food and supplies since early June.
But Urban Ventures is part of the neighborhood. With an actual farm in the city, the organization is an example of the growing phenomenon of urban agriculture.
With roots that stretch back to the community garden movement during the Great Depression and World War II, urban farms are firmly entrenched in most cities. Such operations, along with small farms in suburbs and exurbs of the nation’s 50 largest cities, account for about 15% of U.S. farms, a survey done by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2017 found.
Urban Ventures’ goal is to get food to families with children under 12, and demand has doubled since last August, said Mark-Peter Lundquist, director of food, farm and nutrition for Urban Ventures.
“We’ve seen a lot of people who’ve been affected by this,” Lundquist said. “Couples where they’ve both lost their job, and they’re pulling their kids in a wagon.”
Urban Ventures, which has also raised money to help south Minneapolis business owners whose stores were damaged in the riots after Floyd’s death, runs a farm a block north of Lake Street.
On 2 acres along the Midtown Greenway, there are plots of beets, broccoli, cauliflower and cucumbers, greenhouses for tomatoes and peppers, beehives, hydroponics and aquaponics, and a brand-new chicken coop next to a stand of cherry trees.
Everything that’s produced there and at the farm in Lakeville is given away for free on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
“It’s our own little response to COVID,” Lundquist said.
It’s one of the bright spots in a part of the city still visibly scarred by the events of late May, on land that decades ago was the Hennepin County dump.
The reason for all the different types of growing methods — Swiss chard grown in water full of waste from a tank of bluegill, greens grown in Styrofoam sitting on water in tubs — is to teach young people about agriculture.
“It’s just another thing for kids to take care of, to learn about the cycle of food,” Lundquist said.
Before the pandemic, the farm was mostly staffed by teenagers who were paid to work 20 hours a week.
Workers are drawn from the Step Up program. But that part of the farm operation is on hold because of the pandemic and now the farm relies more on volunteers.
The plan next year is to convert some of the land into family plots for people in the neighborhood to grow their own food, Lundquist said.
Cathy Higgins, a volunteer, cut cilantro from a raised garden bed for a mother with two children last Tuesday. Everyone was masked so there wasn’t much chitchat. But the herbs were fresh and they topped a bag full of vegetables for the family as they left through the one-way gate at the back of the outdoor food pantry.
“We didn’t want the impersonal relationship that food shelves have with people,” Lundquist said.
“This seems like what it was meant to be.”