Sowing Seeds of Change

Posted by Monique Dubos on July 16th 2009 in Organizations, Volunteers Edit

In our fast-paced culture of product-based outcomes, one Minnesota group is cultivating something you can’t hold in your hand: relationships that break down barriers to food justice for people of color, women and the poor.

Giles, Claassen and Guettler at the Oxford-Dayton Community Farm. Photo | Monique Dubos

The Minnesota Food and Justice Alliance (MFJA) is a loose affiliation of groups that cultivate community gardens, typically in urban settings, but recognize that the gardeners involved are mostly white and middle class. The groups “each have a special interest in training people of color to garden” and get access to fresh, healthy food, said Melvin Giles, a self-described community peacemaker and coordinator for MFJA. Tom Guettler, the group’s volunteer and workshop coordinator, said, “White folks show up first because we are already tapped into the system. But there’s something more than just saying we want to be diverse.”

The white middle class can easily drive to a grocery store that stocks locally-grown produce, eggs and meat. But in poor and working class neighborhoods, limited availability of fresh food increases rates of fast-food consumption. This leads to higher instances of diabetes, heart disease and obesity in neighborhoods whose residents are mostly people of color. The food justice movement is attempting to address these food access issues. Sarah Claassen, Minnesota-based Land Stewardship Project organizer and MFJA member, said, “There are huge racial disparities in our food and agricultural system today. It’s working real well for some people [factory farms], and not well at all for [small] farmers, for eaters, for people who want to grow our food here and for people who want to be in control of their food system.” She believes that the remedies to these problems have to be community-based. “Where there are the biggest barriers, there is the biggest innovation.” Solutions such as how to grow a lot of food in a small space with very little waste must be developed for each community’s needs.

Claassen adds, “We need to maintain relationships with rural communities. I don’t see a food system where everything is grown in the city, but we do need to empower people to make those decisions.” Because land is the biggest obstacle in urban community gardening, Giles says that forming relationships between stakeholders is essential. For example, CSA (community-supported agriculture) is a model where local farmers provide what they raise to city dwellers. Their patrons might otherwise buy supermarket goods shipped from thousands of miles away. Giles said one neighborhood’s answer was to make a deal with a grower to allow them to pay for their CSA in installments.

“Education to action is something we’re committed to, not just talking to talk,” said Claassen. In this spirit, MFJA has agreed to sign on to Homegrown Minneapolis, an initiative to build a stronger local food system, with the stipulation that racial equity and accountability be stated goals. Giles, Guettler and Claassen also offer a workshop for community garden groups in which they talk about white privilege, encouraging the groups to create a safe place for conversations about the barriers to food justice in their communities. “Smart white folks tend to take a world view of things. They externalize as opposed to looking in the garden and in themselves. Our goal is to get people to look inside and say, ‘What’s going on here? Who’s here? Who’s not here? What can I do about it?’”

Tom Guettler, MFJA coordinator 651-307-5691

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