In January 2011, lifelong community organizer Michael Chaney, founder of the Twin Cities Juneteenth Festival and a member of the Afro Eco board, became inspired by what he considered an unfair attack on North High School.
“They were trying to close down North High, so Elizabeth Lasley from North High mentioned that they had been growing some starter plants in the school’s green room, and in conversations we said, ‘Well, why don’t we grow some sweet potatoes in the green room at North High?’” said Chaney.
Since North High is one of the only high schools in Minnesota that has a green room, Chaney knew that the students could show the community that there was still learning being done at the school by growing sweet potatoes there. Elizabeth Lasley, the leader of the Community Ed. after-school program at North High School, recognized and shared the same vision as Chaney did for the students to seize control of their own destinies.
“He instantly thought how the young people could step into the youth voice piece and carry the torch for themselves, stating that we are still vibrant in this building,” said Lasley. “There is still learning taking place here, and before you have this [rumor] that says North High School is closed, we’re going to take steps forward here and show the community that this school is still about learning.”
The prospect of the district closing North High School became the genesis of the idea to start the Project Sweetie Pie program, a year-round horticulture and entrepreneurial training program for youth and community members from North Minneapolis.
Project Sweetie Pie is an urban farm movement designed to promote healthy food and physical activity in urban areas, while promoting economic opportunity in the food distribution system. This summer, Project Sweetie Pie has already worked with 130 youth and many more community members planting and growing food.
Although the program is only in its first year, Project Sweetie Pie is growing at a very rapid pace, having the support of 45 community partners including Northway Community Trust and NorthPoint Health and Wellness Center. Project Sweetie Pie has seven urban garden sites in North Minneapolis where several youth groups are working and learning farming skills.
Robert Woods, a financial consultant for small businesses and development coordinator for Project Sweetie Pie, donated the garden plot at 1509 Freemont Ave. N., and he is also working with the Minnesota Jaguars youth group teaching farming.
“I’ve been extremely pleased with outpouring of support from both individuals and organizations willing to donate resources and time to the project,” said Woods. “We have had a tremendous amount of support from a litany of organizations, everyone from firefighters to the mayor and his wife.”
Over the course of this summer, Sweetie Pie will provide mentors from the community to instruct youth on planting and harvesting. Project Sweetie Pie will be growing an assortment of vegetables as well as sweet potatoes.
“We will be growing sweet potatoes, tomatoes, zucchini, broccoli, lettuce,” said Chaney. “We’re going to grow whatever the market bears, and we’re going to bring it to the marketplace.”
The youth participants working on the different gardening sites will be actively engaged in selling the raised produce at the community farmers’ markets in North Minneapolis. Deep Roots Gourmet Desserts will also be purchasing sweet potatoes grown by some of the students who originally planted the potatoes from North High as well as from Project Sweetie Pie summer participants.
In addition to teaching youth how to grow food, Project Sweetie Pie also strives to educate youth and encourage them to consider careers in the food distribution industry. “We will provide entrepreneurial training through the classroom as well as through site visits to various corporations and businesses, which will be a way to show youth that there are a lot of career and business opportunities in the food distribution industry,” said Woods.
Project Sweetie Pie has also received support from the citywide program Step Up, which has provided funding to pay some of the youth participants for their work on the garden sites. Lasley elaborated on the importance of the project receiving support from programs like Step Up.
“The Step Up program has been very beneficial to me this summer, because my budget doesn’t allow me to pay students to come work over here, and for high school students that’s exactly what they need. They need to be working and be paid for their work,” said Lasley. Not all of the youth participants working on the garden sites are being paid for their work this summer, but the project has been able to provide work sites for some youth in the community looking for employment.
“Through the systems in play, Project Sweetie Pie garden lots will be their jobs sites for the summer,” said Chaney. “But there is also the sales of the produce where the individual organizations involved can decide to give that money back to the students as a form of pay, or they can keep it with the organization.”
Most importantly, Project Sweetie Pie will provide youth from North Minneapolis and other urban communities with some important life skills that they might not have been introduced to if this program didn’t exist. Lasley, working with the North Go Green team on one of the program’s garden plots, talked to one of her students who was unsure about working in the dirt and wary of the idea. By the end of the day, that same student talked appreciatively about the skills she was learning, indicating that she was happy to be learning gardening because it was something her mother had always wanted to learn.
“If we can capture the minds of the youth to where they can then learn something they may not have had an opportunity to explore and transform that information home, we could make a huge change in the community,” said Lasley.
Another very essential part of this project is promoting healthy eating.
Michael Chaney believes this project will teach the youth participants the importance of eating healthy and provide some steady, positive encouragement.
“We are planting the seed of change,” Chaney said. “We’re changing the paradigm, so whereas fast food might be easier or cheaper, are we doing ourselves a disservice? We have to change the paradigm and show our kids that they need to consider agriculture.”
Project Sweetie Pie sprouted from the negativity of the possible closing of North High School. Now that this new project is up and running, it’s already making a positive impact on community members in North Minneapolis. Going forward, Project Sweetie Pie has plans to work with 500 kids annually and expand to 20 gardening sites.
“So we have it working from the planting of the seeds in the ground, to the maintenance of the garden throughout the summer, to the taking it to the market and selling it to the customers,” said Chaney. “This is a full system, and [youth] can get in where they fit in. Anyplace along that road to success, they can get on board and travel to the end of that line.”
Paris Porter is a journalism intern with the MSR. He welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.