Poet/activist Michael Chaney may best be known for the greening of North Minneapolis through Project Sweetie Pie, the urban agriculture and advocacy nonprofit he founded and runs. But his vision goes far beyond gardening.
He’s aiming to create a “Nile of the North,” a green corridor of community gardens with deltas of economic and ecological opportunity for residents — especially young people.
“We are aligning advocates and resources to preserve the land and create a local food system, not only to raise our children, but our children’s children’s children,” he says.
Turning vacant lots into productive organic gardens has environmental benefits, too. Tilled soil lets water soak into the ground instead of flowing off the land into lakes and rivers. This helps keeps water clean, an essential part of healthy local food production.
Currently, the self-described “ag patriot” spends his summers supporting more than two dozen gardening sites from his pick-up, always ready to dig in the dirt or cajole a reluctant gardener with his own sweat equity.
He sees Project Sweetie Pie as “an urban farming movement to seed healthy changes in our community” with the goals of informing, infusing, inspiring, and instructing about sustainability and resilience.
With recent funding from both the state legislature and Greater Twin Cities United Way, the food “corridor” behind this urban agriculture vision is rapidly developing. United Way and General Mills are granting 11 North Minneapolis organizations $1.5 million to support food access programs, and recent legislation will provide another half million dollars of support.
The headwaters of this Nile are the students at North High School, whose futures Chaney’s invested in since the school threatened to close in 2010. That threat caused him, and other community partners, to develop new ways to support a school that has long been the lifeblood of the community. Among those efforts was starting a school garden.
Chaney, who sees partnership possibilities everywhere, got local storyteller and activist Rose McGee to buy sweet potatoes from the garden for her famous sweet potato pies, and Project Sweetie Pie was born.
Since then, out of the produce young people are growing with PSP and other rural growers, a Youth Café at Oak Park Community Center and half a dozen other expressions of the culinary arts have sprung up. The produce also supports a distribution network that includes BrightSide Produce — one of the latest youth-led additions to the food access scene.
Another tributary off this Nile of the North flows to the University of Minnesota, and its “Healthy Foods, Healthy Lives” initiative, which brings extension educators and master gardeners to North High School to help students expand the garden beyond its sweet potato origins.
Ultimately, Chaney envisions a verdant and abundant ecosystem in North Minneapolis that provides both food and jobs for the local residents, and includes: a story-mapping project and app based on the PSP gardens and their produce; a greenhouse on Humboldt and Dowling Avenue North with an agriculture training and education facility; and a host of other entrepreneurial, urban agriculture initiatives that also benefit water quality.
After all, “Water is the source of life,” he notes.
To get involved, check out these urban farming resources: