DULUTH – The wild rice cupcakes with maple syrup buttercream frosting were a tempting way to show kids the potential of Indigenous foods.

But the inspiring Ojibwe songs and prayer delivered by Hope Flanagan of Dream of Wild Health are what hooked Superior Middle School student Zoey Moder.

"It makes me think about food, and the meaning of it," she said. "I feel connected."

Moder is one of nearly 20 kids from Red Lake Nation to the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa taking part in an expanded gardening program through the American Indian Community Housing Organization (AICHO). Called "Together We Grow," the program kicked off Thursday with a blessing of the gardens by Flanagan, food from local producers and Ojibwe and English sign-making for the vegetables, herbs, fruits and medicines planted in the rooftop garden beds of AICHO's downtown building, Gimaaji Mino Bimaadizimin.

The building's residents have been gardening for several years, but new grant money from the Center for Prevention at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture has allowed the program to grow. Now, other Native American kids and kids of color who live in the region are able to take part in the intensive program that teaches them to plant, harvest, forage, cook and market produce.

"When you live downtown, there isn't a lot of access to healthy foods if you don't have a car," said Katie Schmitz, lead gardener and children's program coordinator for AICHO.

The gardens help create food sovereignty while empowering and teaching kids valuable skills, she said.

The grant will help the group contract with more Native American food producers to work with the kids, like the Baby Cakes Wild Rice Bakery/Savage Girls Salads crew that catered Thursday's lunch with greens from its garden and hard-boiled eggs from its chickens. Those producers will showcase not only what they grow or make, but how entrepreneurship works. There will be more field trips and exposure to cultural practices, said Daryl Olson, AICHO's program director.

Flanagan is community outreach and cultural teacher for Dream of Wild Health, a Hugo nonprofit that works to restore health in Native communities through recovering knowledge and access to Native American ways. It also nurtures an Indigenous rare seed collection. The organization delivered fresh produce to Native neighborhoods in Minneapolis that lost grocery stores to fire and other destruction in the aftermath of George Floyd's death.

Nonprofits like Dream of Wild Health and AICHO see that healing comes from more than just basic services, Flanagan said.

"People need balance and mental and spiritual evolution," she said. "You need to get your fingers in the earth and grow what can feed you."

She told the kids Thursday about the importance of water and the Ojibwe connection to Lake Superior and surrounding land. You are stewards of this land and its water, she said, and of maintaining Native American culture and traditions.

"You are the next ceremonial helpers," she said. "I am grateful you are here."

AICHO will host farmers markets in the parking lot of One Roof Community Housing this summer, offering food grown from its gardens and from other local Indigenous vendors.

Led by Native American women, AICHO offers supportive housing, a domestic violence emergency shelter and other services meant to strengthen Native American communities. Its downtown building hosts art galleries, a gift shop and a community center.

Jana Hollingsworth • 218.508.2450