Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Minneapolis Group Is Growing Food To Protect Members From Effects Of Racism, Disease


When police killed George Floyd outside a Minneapolis corner store, it reminded the world of how racism can become lethal. But just a few miles away, on the north side of the city, racial inequality plays out in more ordinary, yet still harmful ways. Access to fresh food in north Minneapolis has been a struggle for decades, compounding the health effects of the pandemic. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports on a group growing food to fight racism and disease.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: In north Minneapolis, protests after George Floyd's death damaged and shut down the only full-service grocery store within 3 miles. What remained were dozens of fast food and convenience stores. With little access to fresh food, some, like Princess Haley, are trying to lead her community down a different path.

PRINCESS HALEY: And then, of course, we've got dino kale, which is perfect for kale...

NOGUCHI: Haley stands in a community garden the size of a soccer field. It brims with end-of-season rainbow chard, habanero peppers and purple tomatoes.

HALEY: Oh, these are poblano.

NOGUCHI: Haley is a teacher with a cheerleader's energy. She passes on her love of growing food to her kids. She and her son, Anthony Titus, grew cucumbers together in a plastic baby pool.

HALEY: Anthony and I had laughed and teased each other about tasting manure.

NOGUCHI: In the summer, Anthony babysat local kids. One Fourth of July, he was walking by this garden when a stray bullet pierced his back.

HALEY: I'm looking right at the house where he died in their yard. I can see the fence where the bullet hit him and his hat felt.

NOGUCHI: The kid everyone called Prince Charming was 16.

HALEY: That trauma took me away from my garden.

NOGUCHI: Grief killed her appetite for life. She withdrew. The garden withered. Then, one day, she felt called outdoors.

HALEY: I remember the sun, clear as day, saying to me, why didn't you go back to the garden? Why did you let your garden die?

NOGUCHI: Bringing it back to life revived her.

HALEY: I could only pull myself out of it in the garden. I felt like the garden is truly a healing space.

NOGUCHI: Over time, she began to see her community's problems of violence and poverty in a new light. So much of healthy interaction, she realized, is based on how we eat.

HALEY: And the stereotype is police eat donuts. And the kids in the hood, they're eating chips, sodas as well. So when they come together, how do we expect them to have a well interaction when what they've fed their body is primarily sugar?

NOGUCHI: Haley eventually co-founded Appetite for Change. Its mission is to improve the local diet. Since the pandemic, it's supplied artichokes, greens and other produce grown here to 300 local families. LaTasha Powell, another co-founder, says it's one tiny solution within a huge, long-standing problem. As a child, Powell could walk to five grocery stores from home.

LATASHA POWELL: We did all our shopping here on Broadway.

NOGUCHI: Shopping was a family affair.

POWELL: The cousins and siblings...

NOGUCHI: And Powell's grandmother, nicknamed Chip (ph), fed her sprawling crew of family and friends.

POWELL: Man, Chip could cook her butt off. Man, she cooked...

NOGUCHI: One by one, the stores shut down. Meanwhile, poor diet is one of the big reasons more Black and Latino people are dying of COVID-19 here and nationally.

POWELL: For people to constantly die in my neighborhood every day and a lot of that have to relate to the diet that they have is not OK.

NOGUCHI: Powell says the community's expectations about food and healthy eating in general are shaped by paltry local options. She lobbied chain stores to stock more fruits and vegetables like they do in suburban stores. They didn't. Steve Belton explains why. Belton is president and CEO of Urban League Twin Cities.

STEVE BELTON: It becomes a vicious cycle because you don't have the businesses there. People are not able to support themselves and to live healthy lives. There are not of employment opportunities represented by those businesses. And people's health is suffering because of the absence of healthy choices.

NOGUCHI: LaTasha Powell got fed up.

POWELL: I don't have the energy or the power to fight a corporation who don't want to do right by my community. But what is a alternative way that we can get what we need for the people that live here in this community?

NOGUCHI: That alternative way, for now, brings us back to those gardens and Princess Haley, the woman whose son died on the Fourth of July 10 years ago.

HALEY: Tasha, where's cucumbers?

NOGUCHI: Haley has brought local students, including her 15-year-old, to help harvest produce. Her daughter, Princess Ann, complains of hunger.

HALEY: Find something in the garden.

PRINCESS ANN: What - I want a granola bar...

HALEY: Taste this.

PRINCESS ANN: ...And some fruit. Mama, I don't like tomatoes.

HALEY: Just taste it. You don't like store-bought tomatoes.

PRINCESS ANN: I don't like tomatoes in general.

NOGUCHI: Haley ignores her and gently hugs a plant.

HALEY: My babies - okra.

NOGUCHI: Okra, she says, healed her arthritic knees.

HALEY: Like, drinking okra water a whole year - both of these are still my knees. Amen, amen.

NOGUCHI: The garden soothes the deeper pain from losing her son, too. It resurfaces with every shooting.

HALEY: Having that happen so often takes me back to the Fourth of July.

NOGUCHI: Yet she keeps coming back.

HALEY: The meaning of the name George - and I am talking about George Floyd - his name means the farmer. His name represents the land.

NOGUCHI: Haley says some friends say gardening feels too reminiscent of slavery. It's the opposite, she tells them. It's a source of justice. When grocery shelves are bare, gardens feed you.

HALEY: Then they become concerned about the soil, the air and the water. Once that individual makes that change, then their social circle changes. Their children make different decisions. Their friends want to know, girl, what's that in that pot?

NOGUCHI: One of her converts is 17-year-old Carl Childs, who's plucking fronds of dino kale.

CARL CHILDS: This noise right here - you know it's, like, fresh. And, you know...

NOGUCHI: Childs discovered a love of snap peas working after school with Appetite for Change. He says supplying produce to neighbors without access to it feels powerful.

CHILDS: Local fresh food to eat - so like, it's really important, and I love it. I love the feeling, giving back to the community.

NOGUCHI: Haley's daughter, Princess Ann, watches Childs eat a speckled tomato. It looks like the one she told her mother she hated.

CHILDS: It's a tomato.

PRINCESS ANN: Oh, this is good. This is good. You - we used to grow a lot of carrots.

NOGUCHI: With her mother out of earshot, she raves about those carrots.

PRINCESS ANN: I ate purple carrots, green carrots, yellow carrots straight out the ground. Those are the best foods ever.

NOGUCHI: And that's how the convert becomes the preacher.

Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, North Minneapolis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Yuki Noguchi is a correspondent on the Science Desk based out of NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C. She started covering consumer health in the midst of the pandemic, reporting on everything from vaccination and racial inequities in access to health, to cancer care, obesity and mental health.