By LEE EGERSTROM
A collaborative of Minneapolis faith-based, cultural and health organizations will soon start a second year of serious urban farming in an effort to change how Native Americans live and eat and take their neighbors along on the same healthy journey.
Weather permitting, volunteers and staff from involved groups will transplant crops May 12 in the Gandhi Mahal Interfaith Garden, 3201 22nd Ave. S.
Some of the produce raised this growing season will be used at First Nations’ Kitchen, a ministry of the nearby All Saints Episcopal Indian Mission (3044 Longfellow Ave. S.), said Claire Baglien, with Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light (MNIPL) and the Gandhi Mahal Interfaith Garden coordinator.
Some produce will be used at Gandhi Mahal Restaurant, which is another backer of the urban gardening program. And still more will be distributed or picked up by people in the neighborhood – primarily from the large Native American community living on the south side.
The Rev. Canon Robert Two Bulls (Oglala Lakota) with the Indian Mission and All Saints Episcopal Church, said the collaborative effort also combines Indigenous cultural thought of community and caring for the environment with theological, or faith-based thought, on caring for our planet and for each other.
“Working together in community is a cultural value,” Two Bulls said. There’s been a learning curve for him as well, he said. “We live in a time when funding is being whittled away. That’s the reality. How do we put our money together and work together?”
The work First Nations’ Kitchen does in providing free meals and access to nutritional food to underserved people is especially important for Two Bulls.
“Health and food. We have a lot of problems with both in our Native population,” he said. “Heart disease and diabetes are big problems, including in my own family.”
The Indian Health Service (IHS) unit of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services crunched recent Census data in April to show how American Indians and Alaska Natives are impacted. In a study (“Indian Health Disparities”), IHS researchers found that Native communities have a life expectancy 4.4 years shorter than all U.S. races. Heart disease, cancer, unintentional accidents, diabetes and alcohol-induced problems were leading causes of Indian deaths and were far greater than for the overall U.S. population.
All can be related to diets and lifestyles. Such statistics and linkages are not ignored by health professionals.
“Many of the leading health challenges Minnesotans face are undeniable links to what we eat,” said Janell Waldock, vice president of Community Health and Health Equity at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota. The Blues’ foundation and its Center for Prevention is a financial supporter and partner of the Gandhi Mahal Interfaith Garden urban farm project.
Waldock said healthy eating challenges “are magnified by the inequities that exist in our state, particularly by race, cultures and geographies.” The urban farm project addresses healthy eating and health inequities, creating healthier Minnesota communities for all, she said.
Collaborating with shared and compatible missions becomes important for all the partners.
Two Bulls said a Presbyterian minister visited First Nations’ Kitchen and he was a friend of Ruhel Islam of Gandhi Mahal Restaurant. The Bangladesh native and chef of Bangladeshi and Indian cuisine shared interests in fresh, organic and healthy foods, and then started preparing foods for First Nations’ Kitchen fundraisers.
That became a multicultural bond of compatible objectives. Around the same time, Islam became friends with an official of Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light. Another bond was created with shared goals for Mother Earth and her peoples.
Islam said in a brief interview that becoming friends with Native Americans and faith-based groups concerned about human health and environmental well-being was a convergence of shared interests. “Good health and good food; that is my culture as well,” he said.
MNIPL, initially called Congregations Caring for Creation, is a non-profit organization formed by ecumenical faith organizations and congregations in 2004. It has about 250 member congregations within major religious denominations that work on educating congregants on climate and environmental issues and in promoting legislation in Minnesota that reduces greenhouse gas emissions.
A big part of Gandhi Mahal Interfaith Garden is similarly educational in purpose, garden coordinator Baglien said. The garden is located in the backyard of property owned by a MNIPL official. It started with urban students in 2012 and became the interfaith garden a year ago.
The garden is protected by walled fencing that has windows for passersby to stop, watch the plants grow, and engage in conversations about food, soil and well-being with workers in the garden.
Coincidence or not, that about sums up the meaning of the word “Mahal” in English. Though it doesn’t translate completely, it is usually a reference to a palace. But in various Asian languages, it describes a place of rest, or a protective compound; it can be a place of solace.
It is also in keeping with the spirituality and search for justice inspired by Mohandas Gandhi in India, Baglein said.
It seeks to promote ecological sustainability, promote the values and wisdom of Indigenous people and promote healthy and natural lifestyles across cultural lines, she said. It offers an unusual opportunity to connect soil, climate and food together for neighbors and young people who don’t have farm backgrounds.
The garden and its backers held a community block party a year ago to explain to neighbors what it was about. That gained volunteers for the garden and for First Nations’ Kitchen, and neighbors made regular stops by the property to check the progress of the garden throughout the growing season.
Current plans call for planting lettuce, sorrel, spinach, three or four varieties of squash including a unique Banglasquash variety that the restaurateur Islam introduced, black turtle beans, radishes, carrots, garlic, kale, beets, three varieties of eggplant, Thai chilies, jalepeno peppers, cilantro, dill and garlic chives. And, in keeping with the sustainable, organic nature of the garden, Baglein said they will be also planting wildflowers for pollinators.
Since part of the garden’s mission is to promote cultural ties within communities, Gandhi Mahal Interfaith Garden is also planting crops that Baglein identifies within the Native Americans’ “sacred plants realm.” They include white sage that the garden received from Wuju Wakan Garden (4019 31st Ave. S.), another culturally-relevant urban farming venture supported by faith and food groups, plus sweetgrass and tobacco.
The size of the garden and amount of produce harvested is important but not the single most important objective, Baglein said. Connecting people to healthy living, healthy and sustainable food systems and culturally appropriate foods make building blocks for a stronger community in south Minneapolis.