A garden on the greenway

Urban Ventures hires neighborhood youth to work farm and greenhouses

Credit: Gary Ross (l) oversees teens Leslie Nicolas, Deontre Wade and Mario Pascual working at CityKid Farm off the Midtown Greenway. Photo by Michelle Bruch

A new farmers market launching this month will sell produce right off the Midtown Greenway near 5th Avenue. But CityKid Farm isn’t your average farmers market. Urban Ventures is hiring youth from the neighborhood to farm its urban greenhouses and gardens, also located off the greenway. Minneapolis women are taking jobs as beekeepers and they will sell honey from nearby rooftop hives.

The efforts help subsidize another mobile market on wheels that sells discounted produce in areas without fresh food.

“I like that idea that we could expand, address hunger, address nutrition, and address employment,” said Mark-Peter Lundquist, Urban Ventures’ vice president of outreach. “We have a different bottom line than being profitable.”

The CityKid garden staff are led by youth outreach worker Gary Ross, who grew up on a farm in Mississippi.

“I didn’t know what a store-bought chicken was until I moved to Minnesota,” he said.

He thinks this job represents many of the youths’ first paychecks. He expects everyone to arrive on time, and he explains to them that a real-world boss won’t take kindly to tardiness.

“They remind me of myself when I was a kid,” he said.

On a recent morning, youth were harvesting produce headed straight for a mobile truck that would make stops at Ascension School and the YMCA in North Minneapolis later that day. The mobile market hits “food deserts” — areas where healthy food is harder to find. The truck provides customers with a bag (typically $5 for a large bag or $2 for a small one) to fill up with as much produce as possible.

One mobile market site is the McDonald’s parking lot on Lake Street near I-35W. Lundquist said the owner is happy to host — she even donates the restaurant’s used coffee grounds for farm compost.

Urban Ventures recently built a second urban greenhouse and runs an orchard off the greenway with plums, raspberries, cherries and apples.

Leslie Nicolas, age 16, is gardening with CityKid Farm. Her mother grows tomatoes and chili peppers, but she’s personally never had an interest until now.

“It’s fun,” she said. “I don’t think it’s hard — there is just a lot of it.”

Nicolas is also beekeeping, and she’s enjoyed learning about the science. She checks on the queen bee’s health and makes sure there is enough space for the newborn bees.

“We can actually help them a lot for production,” she said.

Seven-thousand bees have a new home on the roof of the Colin Powell Center. The bees can travel for miles, so Lundquist said they’re likely pollinating the orchard and gardens below.

“It’s so interesting,” said beekeeper Rosa Aragon. “Every time we go in there it’s an adventure.”

The hives are a partnership with the University of Minnesota’s Bee Lab, which is trying to boost the urban bee population.

When the bee season is done, the women may transition into making salsa. The hydroponic greenhouses can expand the growing season into December.

Urban Ventures is working to raise $40,000 for the new greenhouse, honey business and trailside market via Fundly.com.

Later in the summer, staff plan to give away shallow gardening palettes that can sit on asphalt, or perhaps Dunn Bros coffee bags filled with a mini tomato plant. Seventy percent of residences in the area are rentals, Lundquist said, and they want to demonstrate that gardening is possible in the city.

Urban Ventures operates job training, youth mentoring and parenting classes, serving 5,000 youth and adults. The nonprofit serves meals to kids after school five days per week.

“We started noticing that kids were coming back for seconds and thirds. They were not going to be eating that night,” Lundquist said. “We found that a lot of families here manage things by determining what meals they are going to miss.”

Nutritional education is a major goal for the farm. Lundquist said people on low incomes might stock up on foods that make the stomach feel full and satisfied, like beans, rice, bread and pasta.

“It affects their choices of food,” he said. “What’s going to take away hunger pains more?”

Foods that stick in the belly don’t always provide the best nutrition, however.

Lundquist said the neighborhood sees tremendous health disparity, with diabetes prevalent in kids.

He said low-income families are hurt by access, affordability and understanding of food nutrition.

“They’re used to eating the way they do because that’s all that’s available to them,” he said.

A recent New York Times story cited research showing that shoppers with lower income and lower education tended to eat less healthy food, even if they lived in wealthy neighborhoods with access to fresh food. The reverse was true as well — wealthier shoppers with more education managed to eat better regardless of geography.

One-hundred people showed up to a recent mobile market at Hennepin County Medical Center, and Lundquist said 80 percent fell into the market’s target groups.

“Some couldn’t pay and some could,” Lundquist said. “If all they have is $1 or $1.50, we do it. … They’re getting $25-$30 worth of food.”

The farmers market on the greenway will likely start operation in lateJuly, running about two nights per week. In addition to food like cucumbers, tomatoes, kale and onions, they’re planning to offer a juice bar or iced coffee.

“We want people to come sit and tour and talk,” Lundquist said. “And maybe we can inspire.”