The growth of seed libraries in Minneapolis

The Central neighborhood seed exchange
The Central neighborhood seed exchange opened at Hosmer Library in 2018, only to be put on hold four months later when the library closed for renovation. Photo courtesy of Plant-Grow-Share

Fernanda Sequeiros-Hart’s work is not just about seeds. It is about understanding what we can learn from them.

“We talk about seeds being resilient,” she said. “We need to have the same attitude.”

As co-coordinator of the Plant-Grow-Share (PGS) urban gardening program with the Central Area Neighborhood Development Organization (CANDO), Sequeiros-Hart applies painstaking intention to ground her work in ecosystems of support — support that makes space for her community to try and fail together.

“I love growing food. It’s part of my own process,” she said. “It’s almost like a healing experience for me.”

Through PGS, Sequeiros-Hart works to combat what she sees as one of the major barriers to food sovereignty: a misunderstanding of what community capacities are.

This misunderstanding happens on both an individual and neighborhood level. People come with this sense that “I don’t feel that I have what it takes,” Sequeiros-Hart explained. And so she tells her neighbors that when it comes to growing food: “Please go home and mess it up.”

And while she tries to uplift her neighbors interpersonally, Sequeiros-Hart constantly keeps a framework of collective capacity in mind. This is why she eschews the concept of a “food desert.” “What if we start visualizing grass as a space for food?” she asked. “Then we transform it into an edible space…[Food desert] is such a limiting descriptor of a neighborhood or what peoples’ capacities are.”

The PGS ecosystem has grown substantially since the program began with a small grant from the city in 2015.

Like most community gardening initiatives, PGS started with soil. Using skills she gained through the woodshop while in art school, Sequeiros-Hart worked with neighborhood families to build 20 raised beds in one afternoon. “It was an explosion of energy,” she said.

Since then, the program has evolved to adapt to emerging community needs.

Neighborhood growers were nervous about over-harvesting, so PGS added home visits to support participants in the harvesting process. People were unsure how to prepare some of the foods they were growing, so PGS added cooking classes and a community cookbook. PGS had an overabundance of food in their communal plots, so the program added a free mobile farmers market to distribute food around the neighborhood.

And in 2017, PGS noticed that they were accumulating a lot of seeds. Specifically, they were accumulating under Sequeiros-Hart’s desk at the CANDO office. And that bothered her.

Seed Library

“I hate the idea of unshared resources,” Sequeiros-Hart said. “Every week that goes by with these bags under my desk is wasted.”

She wanted to get the seeds out into the community but in a way that they could be collected and shared by and for the growers themselves. And so the seeds for a community seed bank were planted.

The term “seed bank” speaks to the functional similarities it shares with a traditional monetary bank, according to the Seed Savers Exchange. As tiny genetic packages that hold the key to food production, seeds can be viewed as a measure of future security and return on investment.

But while large-scale seed banks like Seed Savers operate as massive sites of seed preservation, community seed banks “are more about sharing seed season to season.” For this reason, Seed Savers explains on its website, it may be more accurate to call them “seed libraries.”

And so it is no surprise that public libraries have emerged as homes for community seed exchanges. While these library-based exchanges are not a new idea, they are relatively new to Minneapolis. When PGS began planning for a neighborhood seed exchange, there was only one other local seed bank in operation, housed at Nokomis Library.

In partnership with then-Hosmer librarian Chip Gehring, the Central neighborhood seed exchange opened at Hosmer in 2018, only to be put on hold four months later when the library closed for renovation. Still, it generated significant enthusiasm even in that short time.

When the Hosmer Library reopens later this summer, it will do so with an entire section dedicated to the seed bank.

Magdalena Kaluza co-coordinates PGS alongside Sequeiros-Hart. One of her roles is to oversee the seed bank partnership with Hosmer and to integrate it as a resource for neighborhood gardeners who participate in PGS’s existing programs and networks.

Kaluza is working with Hosmer librarians to expand library services in order to better support the seed bank and increase accessibility. For example, the library is looking to expand its collection of Spanish-language gardening books. Kaluza is also interested in increasing Spanish signage and informational materials in and around the seed bank area.

There are other complications to this partnership. Although libraries often serve as community gathering hubs, they may not be welcoming to everyone. In addition to language barriers, undocumented residents may be scared away from using the seed bank if it necessitates presenting a form of identification, even if it’s just a library card.

According to Sequeiros-Hart, making the seed bank accessible also means moving away from a culture of policing who and how many seeds people take. In doing so, she hopes the exchange can be built on a sense of accountability and mutual ownership rather than fear. “We’re talking about food sovereignty,” she said. “These seeds belong to us.”

Still, as Kaluza observed, the community seed exchange is “a great cross-pollination between two organizations.” Through this collaboration, she explained, “[PGS] participants may be accessing the library in ways that they wouldn’t be otherwise.”

Gehring expressed their agreement in a 2018 newsletter from Peter McClaughlin, who then served as Hennepin County’s District 4 commissioner. “At the library, we see this as extension of our core mission of empowering the community through information, and community connection and resource-sharing,” Gehring said.

For Sequeiros-Hart, the seed bank is another marker of how local successes reflect the capacities of her community more than the capacities of any particular grant funding. “It feels like a dream model of what we can do as a community to bring people together,” Sequeiros-Hart said.

For now Hosmer and Nokomis libraries are the only two library-based seed banks in the Hennepin County Library system, although according to both libraries, other locations have expressed interest. Southwest Journal columnist Meleah Maynard also operates a Little Free Seed Library in Linden Hills. Those interested in bringing seed exchange to Southwest Minneapolis can check out the Community Seed Bank guide from Seed Savers, or reach out to Plant-Grow-Share to learn about their holistic community seed-sharing model.