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Solutions Exist: North Minneapolis Lot “Occupied” by a Community Garden

July 29, 2013

 

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This is the lot behind the Neighborhoods Organizing for Change in North Minneapolis.

 

Just about anyone who attends a Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC) meeting will tell you, “I know there is a problem. I can see it. I just do not know what to do about the problem.”

When you push them and ask what is meant by ‘I don’t know what to do’, the answer is: “I don’t feel like I have the time or money to make this problem go away. And that’s what I want, I just want this problem to go away.”

The self-described “member-led” organization is dominated by people of color and located in North Minneapolis, where problems are concentrated. So many problems, the average citizen finds life there to be overwhelming. The focus is more on survival than implementing solutions to the problems.

That’s why NOC is so valuable. It inspires the implementation of common sense solutions to very complex problems. How? By slowly providing hands-on learning opportunities where the fundamentals of community organizing are taught. When properly supported, poor people can actually do what they are heavily criticized for not doing on the national stage.

“We noticed the empty lot a few months back,” NOC member Eden Yosief said. Behind NOC headquarters, existed a barren lot big enough for two houses to sit on.

“We questioned ourselves about it a couple times, but the idea was Selam’s, my big sister. We’ve heard it over and over: North Minneapolis is a food desert. We have this vacant lot here. So, really to us it was obvious.”

A “food desert” is a neighborhood where easy access to nutritious food is lacking. North Minneapolis qualifies because Cub Foods is the only grocery store in the area. The alternatives are convenience stores, like Wally’s Foods. Hot chips and Taki are found there, not bananas and oat bread.

Food deserts contribute to the epidemic of obesity and malnutrition suffered by poor Americans. Citizens who live in food deserts aren’t “hungry” in the traditional sense. However, due to the high calorie, high processed products consumed three times a day, diabetes and other diet-related health problems plague the neighborhood. So many citizens suffer from such diseases it’s considered normal to take pills to counter the effects of the food they eat.

The Yosief Sisters decided that the solution to a food desert was to plant a garden in a vacant lot behind NOC headquarters. Without the support provided by an entity like NOC, the idea probably would have remained a talking point instead of a reality.

Selam said, “We started by talking to the neighbors, who assured us that the lot has been untouched for at least 5 years. Everyone that we spoke to was thrilled with the idea, can’t tell you how many times we heard ‘That’s exactly what we need around here’.”

Let’s reiterate the point right here that the solution was easy to arrive at. It is not that poor people are stupid or lazy. Far from it, most of the services in America are delivered by poor people. What was lacking was the time, talent and energy to implement the solution. Being young college students, Eden and Selam have all three in abundance.

“First off, we have this friend, Clemon,” Selam said. “He’s getting his Master’s in horticulture. He was the first person we thought of, as he’s always posting photos of his plants and gardening endeavors. He became enthused when we presented him the idea. Then, we started thinking of people in our networks who have shown any interest in gardening, or a passion for fresh and healthy foods. We also wanted to include people who’ve never planted a seed in their life, and we wanted kids there and people from the area — anyone who’s looking to be involved in something… so we blasted the NOC lists, reached out to as many people as we could and we got quite a few responses! The responses are still coming in.”

Working at the speed of the 21st Century, the Sisters conceived of the idea on a Thursday and had a solid plan, with committed people, five days later on a Tuesday. Before the week was out, the lot was “occupied.” There was even a barbeque to celebrate.

Speaking with NOC Executive Director Anthony Newby, By2015:AMERICA discovered that the lot is owned by the City of Minneapolis. The question was asked if NOC was concerned about the City pushing back. Newby just smiled. Challenging the system on behalf of poor people is what NOC does.

“I’m anxious, I can’t wait to see the fruits of our labor,” Selam said. “Everyday, we hear people say, ‘What can I do? How can I get involved with the garden?’ It’s so inspiring and so hopeful to see people building this power around something so ‘uncool’ as gardening. We all just want to do better for ourselves, that’s why were here.

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Of course, the children who participated needed to be fed.

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