Harvesting hope in South Minneapolis

Produce program turns no one away empty-handed

Photo by John Evans

Southside Community Health Services (SCHS) and Urban Ventures (UV) are literally harvesting hope.

Since 2016, the two nonprofits have run Produce Share Program, a partnership to grow fresh produce for SCHS patients as well as provide health education and help improve life for everyday folk living in South Minneapolis.

In addition to receiving a free box of fresh produce each week during the growing season, clients also receive targeted health education and nutrition tips. Patients are also invited to help in the garden and learn how to grow food.

The program was the brainchild of Southside’s development and communications director, Autumn Chmielewski, who is also a certified urban gardener. She worked with Urban Ventures, which provides holistic programming for families, and additional in-kind support to transform an empty lot that SCHS owns on the corner of 4th Ave. S. and 43rd Street into a budding garden.

“We’ve made a real difference,” said Chmielewski of the program, which has seen improved health outcomes and eating habits each year.

Gary Ross, Urban Ventures farm operations manager, told the MSR, “I [was] one of these kids that I work with right now. I don’t want them to grow up eating how I did.”

You can encourage students in school to eat well along with teaching them their ABCs, but nothing is as effective as learning from a hands-on role model who rolls up his sleeves and gets down in the dirt with them. Ross manages all aspects of produce planning, production, harvest and distribution at Urban Ventures, which operates an urban farm on a cluster of properties it owns centered around the intersection of 4th Ave. S. and Lake Street in Minneapolis. There is also a hoop house, hydroponics, and an orchard.

Agriculture as an activity is a novel notion for urban youth more accustomed to hanging out on concrete and asphalt than to digging around in the dirt. It is, to say the least, a new and different experience — one Ross says that they’ve found rewarding. “I’m showing them how to grow veggies every summer out in the garden,” said Ross.

He enjoys showing youngsters how food starts out as a seed planted in the soil and grows into what winds up on the plate. “They take veggies home every single day to cook with their parents. That’s important,” he said.

This is crucial because breaking the cycle of bad eating habits begins at home. Indeed, it’s happened that parents have improved their own diets by participating with their youngsters in the program.


Ross attributes their involvement to Chmielewski. “She sends the parents to us with the kids,” he said.

“Access to produce alone isn’t enough,” Chmielewski said. “[Parents] need the education.” She added, “And that has to be culturally competent.”

“What we see with many minority populations is the perception of healthy food is rich [people’s] food — that it’s about power and privilege. Something it shouldn’t be,” Chmielewski told the MSR. “We have to get past that.”

This involves tailoring recipes accordingly to Mexican American and African American households as well as, when called for, Hmong families.

“There are going to be commonalities,” she said. “People [of a given] culture help design their part of the program to incorporate more fresh produce into what they already like. This makes it appealing.”

The program first launched with 10 clients who were at risk for such maladies as obesity, diabetes or hypertension. Thirty patients participated this year. The program is currently in its evaluation phase — SCHI surveys clients to see how it impacted their health, via such measurable outcomes as weight, diet changes, and even BMI.

Chmielewski told the MSR, “It’s about lifestyle. That is the hope. By providing something as simple as food, we can build a culture where people can create healthy lives for themselves. Giving access to fresh produce, we’ve seen patients have wonderful success in their health outcomes, their engagement in community, and be more [involved] with their families in cooking.”

Ross noted that the priority is providing service rather than restricting who receives it, and that presently there’s a break on the already affordable price. “We offer a 60 percent discount on produce to everyone from the neighborhood who walks in the door [at our] 29th St. and 5th Ave. store. We don’t check I.D. We trust if you say you live in the area.

“I’d love to see more people come down to the garden and buy fresh veggies. It’s affordable, and we turn nobody away. No one goes home emptyhanded.”

“We are hoping to expand and improve and eventually have a program that the whole neighborhood can benefit from,” said Chmielewski, as she begins preparations for next spring. This includes keeping the education running year-round.

The program has also grown to include garden tours and a youth story time featuring local firefighters, police officers, teachers and small business owners.

“I’m so thankful for the partners like Urban Ventures and Seward Co-op who invested in this idea and helped us improve and grow it,” said Chmielewski in a statement. “We’ve harvested hope.”