Inside hydroponic farming at North Market

If you’ve visited North Market recently, you may have noticed a new neighbor in our parking lot. In partnership with Freight Farms, we’ve installed a hydroponic farm on-site, providing a year-round growing environment that will supply North Market shoppers with local, fresh greens and herbs.

But when we say that the Freight Farm at North Market is a “self-contained hydroponic growing environment,” what does that actually mean? What’s happening within these corrugated metal walls? What is the journey of a seed as it makes its way to the North Market produce aisle?

Step 1: Germination

The first step in the life of a plant is germination. We plant our seeds in a specialized “grow plug” made of coconut husk and peat moss. This eco-friendly growing material keeps its shape and holds water better than traditional soil, making it a better fit for our specialized hydroponic drip system.

Once the plug has been seeded, it is soaked in water and placed under red-and-blue LED lights. Our seeds require a lot of light at this stage—19 hours of sunlight every day over the next week—and the farmer closely monitors the growing environment to maintain an ambient temperature of 70° F.

Step 2: The Nursery

After seven days, our seeds have sprouted, and it’s time for their first move. Our baby seedlings are relocated to the upper level of the harvest table, which doubles as a nursery. Here, the tiny sprouts are watered every 12 hours with a special nutrient-rich solution to ensure they are free of disease and can begin to grow strong roots.

The baby plants continue to receive 19 hours of artificial sunlight per day. Depending on the particular crop, a seedling can spend anywhere between 2-4 weeks growing in the nursery before it’s ready for the next stage.

Step 3: Growing

Once a seedling has matured, it’s time to transplant. The young crops are carefully removed from their seed trays and transplanted to vertical grow towers. These grow towers take up the majority of space inside the Freight Farm. Each plant is carefully spaced out to avoid the spread of algae, insects, and plant diseases.

Although the grow towers are made of plastic, a felt wicking strip in the center allows water to drip down and hydrate the crops. The interior of the Freight Farm holds 256 vertical towers, each of which holds approximately 16 plants—meaning that the combined grow-area of the Freight Farm equals approximately 2-3 acres of outdoor field space.

Step 4: Harvest

Finally, after three weeks in the grow towers, it’s time to harvest. The farmer uses a special harvest knife to remove the plant from the tower. Although this is the shortest step, it requires very careful planning on the part of the farmer. Ideally, when one plant is harvested, a new seedling is ready to take its place in the grow tower. This ensures a steady supply of fresh produce for North Market shoppers.

After a quick inspection to ensure the plant is ready to go, the produce is packed and transported across the parking lot for sale at North Market.

Did you know?

  • The interior of the Freight Farm is climate-controlled, meaning that plants can grow year-round—from the hottest summer day to the coldest winter night.
  • The Freight Farm is slightly tilted! While it’s not noticeable to the farmer, the very slight (3°) angle allows for any excess water to drain back into the Freight Farm’s storage tanks. Reverse-osmosis filtering helps purify the water, making it safe once again for human (and plant) consumption.
  • The Freight Farm interior is equipped with 4 Bluetooth speakers, allowing the farmer and seedlings to listen to music all day.
  • “Daytime” for our crops actually takes place at night! The Freight Farm’s LED lights create a lot of heat and can damage the farmer’s eyes without special protective glasses—so it’s easier to run the lights during nighttime hours, when the farmer isn’t present. By using the majority of our electricity at night, we also reduce the farm’s operating costs.

Janis Lane-Ewart named next KRSM Radio station manager

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — Pillsbury United Communities has named Janis Lane-Ewart as the next Station Manager of KRSM Radio.

Lane-Ewart is an award-winning cultural activist who has been working to strengthen and enrich Minnesota with her commitment to the arts and arts education since 1989. She was Executive Director of KFAI Fresh Air Community Radio for 12 years, where she also produced the longstanding jazz show, The Collective Eye. Since 2014, she has served as Development Officer for jazz station KBEM – Jazz88. She has served as a board member of Intermedia Arts, Ananya Dance Theatre, and American Composers Forum.

In November 2019, Lane-Ewart was honored with a Sally Award at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts. The Sallys are based on the First Trust Award given in 1986 to Sally Ordway Irvine. Winners are nominated by the arts community – people whose lives they have directly affected. Lane-Ewart’s award was for commitment.

“We are delighted to welcome Janis to the team. Janis shares our passion for amplifying the voices, stories, cultures, and conversations happening in our neighborhoods,” said Adair Mosley, president and CEO of Pillsbury United Communities.

“I am honored to have been selected to lead the station into the future,” Lane-Ewart said. “Brendan [Kelly] and the whole KRSM team have built a powerful platform for change.”

KRSM Radio is a low-power FM radio station based out of the Phillips neighborhood in South Minneapolis, broadcasting at 98.9 FM across South Minneapolis, and streaming live at krsmradio.org. It is an independently operated social enterprise of Pillsbury United Communities. Its mission is to provide a platform for elevating the voices, narratives, and cultures of those communities with a history of being marginalized, misrepresented, and erased by traditional media and to serve as an on-ramp to jobs in the fields of broadcast media.

What we need from you now

Community member carrying kid on shoulders at Open Streets on Broadway Ave

The compounding effects of intersectional oppression are prominently on display right now. We have an uncontrolled pandemic, on top of the longtime public health crisis that is institutionalized racism. Our democracy is under threat. People are unhoused in record numbers. Gaps in wealth, health, and educational outcomes between the haves and have-nots in our communities are widening even further.

Reimagined systems are desperately needed, and Pillsbury United Communities is heeding that call. Through the lens of people, place, and prosperity, our leaders are aggressively advocating for upstream change that will build long term power in our communities. Additionally, our agency has launched a public policy team and a community development corporation to reimagine the structures that govern our day to day lives.

While we use our institutional power to lay a foundation for long-term change, we remain committed to immediate and short-term relief for those who’ve long borne the brunt of our country’s violent and inequitable systems. We must be responsive to the needs of today without settling for them as permanent fixtures of life in our city.

We hope you’ll join us in seeking justice. For advice on where to start, we’ve asked a few of our leaders to share their wisdom.

Tsega Tamene, Senior Director of Population Health

Tsega Tamene

COVID-19 has been a truth teller. It has exposed what was already in plain sight to many of us. Black, Indigenous, and communities of color have experienced the disparate economic, health, and psychosocial impacts of racism well before, starkly during, and very well likely after this pandemic—unless we choose a different world.

We must reimagine, redesign, and transform systems toward health justice. In doing so, we must fundamentally shift how we think, speak, and act about health and health inequities. Namely, we must shift from treating health as a commodity to health as a human right. Shift now by:

  • Supporting frontline workers like ours who everyday disrupt health inequities that are driven by social and structural harms rooted in racism (not naturally occurring biological difference or individual behavior).
  • Lifting up local wellness and healing justice practitioners who identify as Black, Indigenous, or People of Color (BIPOC).
  • Joining policy advocacy efforts calling for the transformation of our healthcare payment system to prioritize the health of all people. Amplifying the voices of community health workers, doulas, and other critical roles who are lesser valued by existing payment models.
  • Learning more about the history of medicine and racism’s impact on health.
  • Studying yourself to heal yourself. Exploring your racialized trauma and your role(s) in social change.

Faye Price & Noel Raymond, Co-Artistic Directors, Pillsbury House + Theatre

Faye Price - headshot

Faye Price

At Pillsbury House + Theatre, we employ roughly 300, mostly-BIPOC artists every year. Those folks, and the entire creative workforce, are extremely economically unstable right now because of the pandemic. This is a workforce that has been decimated like the restaurant industry.

Our artists are often activists who highlight systemic inequities and cast visions for liberation. They are called to do that imagining regardless of compensation. We need them right now more than ever, and many are being asked to do cultural labor unpaid. There is an expectation that they will always be here, but they won’t if we don’t act. Act now by:

Noel Raymond - headshot

Noel Raymond

  • Hiring an artist. Pay them generously for their time.
  • Donating to a nonprofit’s commissioning fund, so that they are able to hire artists (we have one here at PHT). If you run a nonprofit or work for one, create a commissioning fund and embed artists into your work, minimizing arduous reporting requirements and maximizing compensation.
  • Contacting your member of Congress and tell them to support the Mixed Earner Unemployment Assistance Act of 2020.

Julie Graves, Senior Director of Youth & Future

Julie Graves headshot

Julie Graves

We have built our systems and models of youth programming to complement school models. For better or worse, we live in the tangled webs of integrated systems. When Minneapolis Public Schools change their offerings, we have to pivot too. With school not returning to the status quo this fall, these structures that we’ve played off of always, don’t exist anymore. We have to figure out new ways of engaging our young people and supporting their families in the process. We have to do so in the midst of so much uncertainty about the future of school day education—this year and beyond.

Funding for youth programming in Minneapolis, particularly K-5, has been decimated in the last decade. Our stressed, barebones system of out-of-school youth programming is now being asked to completely reinvent the way it operates to support entirely new needs. We need to return to a system where every child and family has access to a community center that offers a holistic, integrated model of support—tutoring, entertainment, meals, space to just be together.

Support this work by donating to the chronically underfunded community centers, like Waite House, who provide whole-family support. Advocate for more out of school time youth funding in the 2021 Minneapolis city budget—and the state budget. This is violence prevention work. This is an investment in the future of our city.

Antonio Cardona, Director of Office of Public Charter Schools

Antonio Cardona on stage at Greater>Together 2019

Antonio Cardona

Resources are not scarce. They are inequitably concentrated. If we are serious about reimagined systems, we have to question and tactically change what we value and where we direct resources. In public education, we have a simple, yet fundamental challenge: funding for public education is rooted in property taxes that are a result of decades of purposeful housing and employment discrimination. We need to change this system.

Secondly, just as we have been talking about social determinants of health for the last two decades, there are also social determinants of education. COVID-19 and George Floyd’s murder has laid bare the ways in which the most marginalized are the first effected by societal change. Think of a tsunami. First, the water recedes, exposing the gunk just beyond the shoreline. Then, the water slams that same shoreline, throwing everything into disarray. Those on higher ground are able to escape the worst effects. This exposes what kids and families need in order to grow and learn. Stability, food, housing, health care, family businesses—all of the things that have been decimated during this time.

Take action by supporting and participating in the civic institutions that push population-level work forward; voting; completing your Census; and paying attention to city council meetings, school board meetings, and commission decisions. Support and hold your officials accountable while trying to avoid a descent into unhelpful or uneducated dialogue.

“Reimagine Public Safety” teaser video released

George Floyd memorial outside Cup Foods

We’ve been here before. But out of our pain rises the stories of how to heal, how to evolve, and how to build.

Coming later this summer, Pillsbury United Communities will be releasing the first installment of “Reimagine Public Safety,” a new docuseries exploring policing in the city of Minneapolis, and the possibilities that exist to reimagine and transform our systems of public safety. This series is one of the first initiatives from our new Policy & Advocacy team.

Don’t forget to connect with us on Facebook to see future installments and continue the conversation with our Policy & Advocacy team.

We’ve always figured out a way through. It’s time to find a way forward.

Congrats 2020 FANS Grads!

Amid a global pandemic and an unprecedented wave of protests in Minneapolis, the class of 2020 has had a very unusual senior year. And yet despite these unique hurdles, this year’s FANS seniors have pushed through to high school graduation. We couldn’t be more proud of their accomplishments.

FANS is a college and career mentorship program for high schoolers, specifically working with students of color, recent immigrants, and other groups that have been historically underrepresented in higher education. Upon completing the program and graduating from high school, students are eligible for a scholarship to help pay for their continuing education. FANS scholarships are funded entirely thanks to donations from our network of supporters, and 100% of contributions go directly to students to help cover books, tuition, and other expenses.

Keep reading below to meet some of our 2020 FANS graduates below and hear what they have to say about their experiences in the program.

Meet: Zubeda, Roosevelt High School Grad

Why is it important for you to go to college?
It is important for me to go to college because I want to help my family and not depend on anyone else—so I want to give it back to my community, and I feel like going to college and getting an education is the only way I can do that. I also want to go to college because all my life I’ve been going to school and I want to continue to get the education that I need that my friends didn’t get in Ethiopia.

Tell us about your experience with FANS.
FANS has help me prepare for college in many ways. I remember when I first started, I wasn’t really sure about college or what college was, but this program has help me figure out why I need to go to college. I’ve seen people who have been in [FANS] go on to college and become successful, and I want to be like them. It has helped me by going on tours, looking at how I can pay for college, talking with college admission counselors, and just basically preparing me for life after high school.

Youth step up to serve community elders in midst of pandemic

Despite the challenging times we find ourselves in, there is always hope to be found in the selflessness and creativity of neighbors going the extra mile. That’s certainly the case in Cedar Riverside. Since the beginning of Ramadan, 20+ youth organized by the Brian Coyle Center have been delivering more than 200 meals every night to elders, those with limited mobility, and folks who are self-isolating and residing in the neighborhood towers. After a long day of fasting, a warm meal—and a connection with a friendly volunteer—is the perfect opportunity to bridge the social distance.

The Cedar Riverside Community Response Team was first envisioned by a local neighborhood association, the Cedar Riverside Community Council. It was a natural partnership opportunity for Brian Coyle Center, which took the lead in engaging and rallying neighborhood youth volunteers to make the deliveries. The meals are provided by Afro Deli restaurant, and Mixed Blood Theatre has generously provided supplies and space for the team.

While the meals have been warmly welcomed by those 200+ individual community members, the experience has also impacted the youth who are making deliveries. One volunteer, Zubeda, said, “I felt happy fasting and giving back to our elders. It just made me happy and I want to come do it again and again. Hopefully you guys will catch me here a lot more.”

Another volunteer, Akbal, spoke to the opportunity for cross-generational connection:

“Something that’s very important for youth is having this moment to connect with our elders. There’s a huge disconnect between the youth and elders and it may be culture or language. This is the perfect time to learn from them and show them that we care.”

We continue to draw inspiration from our youth volunteers who are stepping up each evening to serve their neighbors—to say nothing of all the partners involved in this, without whom this would literally not be possible. In the midst of uncertainty, it is our honor to stand in partnership alongside others who are committed to seeing our community through this. To all our friends and neighbors who are celebrating—Happy Ramadan!

If you or someone you know residing in the Cedar Riverside towers would like to request a meal delivery, please call 401-285-9247. Please note that this delivery program is reserved solely for elders, people with disabilities, and those who are immuno-compromised.

Harry Colbert, Jr. named next North News editor

Headshot of Harry Colbert, new North News editor

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — Pillsbury United Communities has named Harry Colbert, Jr. as the next editor of North News.

Colbert is an award-winning journalist, has contributed as a reporter, columnist/commentator and editor for such outlets as the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s The Village, Suburban Journals (St. Louis), St. Louis American, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Joplin Globe (Mo.), Metro Networks (St. Louis) and KDHX (St. Louis).

Colbert joined Insight News in Minneapolis as a contributing writer in 2010. While at Insight, he has covered Barack Obama on multiple occasions during his presidency, interviewed countless dignitaries and celebrities and won awards for writing and photography. In June of 2016, Colbert was named Insight’s managing editor.

Colbert’s journalistic accolades include four Minnesota Newspaper Association awards (first place for General Reporting, two second place for Columnist and one third place for General Excellence), three National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) Merit Awards (2018 Best Column, third place, 2017 Best Special Edition, second place [as both writer and managing editor] for an edition dedicated to the passing of Prince and 2016 Best Use of Photography, third place, for his coverage of the North Minneapolis uprising following the killing of Jamar Clark by Minneapolis police officers) and three National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) Salute to Excellence nominations (two for Best Commentary [2018, 2019] and one for Best Business Reporting [2019]).

“We are ecstatic to welcome Harry to our team. Harry intersects a deep commitment and passion for the North Minneapolis community, and we believe he will continue to authentically tell the stories of this resilient place,” said Adair Mosley.

“I’m both humbled and honored to have been selected to lead North News in its next phase of news gathering and sharing,” Colbert said. “Kenzie [O’Keefe] has done an outstanding job piloting the ship in its inaugural phase under Pillsbury United.”

Colbert will begin officially in his role May 11.

Colbert is a proud resident of the Cleveland neighborhood of North Minneapolis.

Colbert replaces Kenzie O’Keefe who will now lead Pillsbury’s policy and advocacy work.

North News is a grassroots print and digital community news source and youth journalism training program in North Minneapolis. It is an independently operated social enterprise of Pillsbury United Communities. North News seeks to deepen understanding, empathy, and appreciation for the Northside through its coverage, expanding perceptions of a place often reduced to a single, negative narrative.

7 ways to stand with our communities during COVID-19

Waite House staff observing social distancing at food distribution site

Wanting to show up for community right now, but not sure how? In addition to a financial contribution to groups that are providing emergency relief services, here are some other ways you can support our communities in these times of social distancing.

1. Make masks for our essential service workers and community members. Our emergency food and childcare teams are working hard on the front lines to provide needed services to Minneapolis families. In less than a month, our food programs have distributed almost 100,000 pounds of food to more than 1,000 families! But, as with others engaging in front-line work, we are always in need of of face masks to ensure the safety of our team. Not only that, but many of the folks coming for services are also facing difficulty accessing masks, something we’d like to assist with! If you have some extra time on your hands and want to hone some craft skills, consider making homemade face masks for our direct service workers and neighbors. Contact Kim with questions and/or to arrange delivery: KimP@pillsburyunited.org, 612-302-3499.

2. Call in to KRSM Radio. Though we are distancing physically, KRSM Radio is working hard to keep content fresh and to keep folks connected over the airwaves. You can call 612-208-3808 and leave a message for KRSM to share with the community. Tell us about how you’ve been finding joy in these strange times; give a recipe to try; sing a song or recite a poem; share great resources available in your neighborhood; or just tell us how you’re holding up. Let your neighbors, friends, and family hear your voice!

3. Clean out your closets for Sisterhood. Feel like doing some spring cleaning while you’re stuck inside? We encourage you to take a look at your clothing closet! Located in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood, Sisterhood Boutique is our gently-used clothing store that doubles as a youth social enterprise. They are always looking for clothing, shoes, and accessory donations (again, gently used please!) to add to their merchandise. So though you might not be able to make the physical hand-off until the shelter-in-place order is lifted, you can feel good knocking out this project ahead of time. Your (future) donation helps fuel a program that equips young East African women leaders with tools and skills for school, life, and more.

4. Shop at North Market. We all still have groceries to get and certainly have a lot of options from where to get them. Consider trying out our nonprofit grocery store, North Market, if you haven’t had a chance yet. It’s not only a full-service grocery store, but also a center for wellness services and a community gathering place in Minneapolis’ Camden neighborhood. It is important to note that they are taking several measures to ensure the safety of their shoppers in light of COVID-19 as well. (Plus, did you know that you can get 50% off all fresh produce EVERY Wednesday!?) Your shopping dollars help support this long sought after community food resource.

5. Read and share North News. Quality journalism doesn’t stop in the middle of a pandemic. With some extra time on your hands, grab a cup of coffee and settle in to read our Northside print (& online!) newspaper, North News. A truly community-based media outlet, North News prides itself on telling the whole stories and truths of Minneapolis’ Northside, not just the one-dimensional narratives often showcased in mainstream media. Like what you’re reading? Share it with your friends and family, and consider signing up to get a copy of the paper delivered to your doorstep each month.

6. Complete the census! Everything happening now is a reminder that our communities are in need of more resources. But did you know that those resources are often allocated based on population numbers from the census? Yep, even for recovery efforts in a crisis such as this. Not to mention housing assistance, school meals, SNAP, WIC, and so on. We only get the appropriate amount of resources if we are counted. We only get adequate political representation if we are counted. If you haven’t already, please take 5 minutes and complete the census today. This is a simple action with significant repercussions. Count your household today and encourage those you know and love to get counted as well.

7. Make a monthly gift. A financial gift is one of the best ways you can support our work during these uncertain times—and one of the best ways to support us financially is by becoming a monthly donor. We know that this will be a long-term struggle. Even after the crisis has passed, our communities will be living with the economic impacts for years to come. Help us continue showing up by signing up for a monthly gift. For as little as $5 per month, you can become part of a circle of grassroots supporters who are enabling all of our vital efforts in community.

Now more than ever, we know that no matter where we go from here, we go together. Thank you for showing up for our communities.

Adult program gains access to more opportunities, arts

EPIC participants performing on stage

Our EPIC Program, Employing Partners in Community, has served adults with disabilities for over 30 years. Though one of our longest standing programs, even that doesn’t make it immune to some changes now and then. One such change—and perhaps the biggest—came this past summer of 2019 when the entire program moved from what was formerly Camden Community Center in North Minneapolis to Pillsbury House and Theatre (PHT) in South Minneapolis’ Powderhorn neighborhood.

Though physically uprooting an entire program to another location on the opposite side of the city may have seemed a little daunting, being re-located into a bustling community-based arts center has since proved to be a “really good, really awesome” change for the program according to Cheryl, who has been with the program for over 20 years. Noting better access to bus routes, resources like health fairs, and other things, she said:

“I think we have a lot more access to services for sure. We coordinate with a lot of professional residents – theatre people and Upstream Arts. I think it’s a better variety for our clients to interact with more members of the community. They coordinate with the daycare too…It’s been a good change for them. I think they all enjoy being here. I think that this is a better atmosphere for them because we’re not so isolated…There’s just more resources around here.”

Since having moved to Pillsbury House and Theatre, EPIC participants have already been involved in a variety of classes, including exercise, theatre, dance movement, and other art forms. Kari, Director of PHT’s Chicago Avenue Project (CAP), said, “I think it’s been a great way to involve them in the work that the theatre staff does because it is very much in line with other things that are going on in the building.” She recently directed two performances that EPIC participants acted in just this month. Each play was from the CAP archive and ran for about 10 minutes. While most of the participants played on-stage characters, others helped with more technical behind-the-scenes aspects like running sound and the lights.

Savannah, one of the EPIC crew members who had been rehearsing the play for three months, said she learned “how to trust people” through the experience. When asked if she would want to do it again, she replied “yes” and said the overall experience was a happy one because she had never acted before.

EPIC is still recruiting more participants. For more information, contact Vickie at VickieB@pillsburyunited.org, or call 612-787-3706.

Census 2020: how to get involved

This past week, a diverse group of nearly 50 community members and leaders came together at our Waite House community center for We Count: Immigrants and Refugees, an event held in collaboration with the City of Minneapolis to raise awareness on the significance of counting everyone in Minnesota. With billions of dollars and political power on the table—and knowing that the most vulnerable communities are historically undercounted—the stakes are high. To ensure a complete and accurate count, one thing became clear: It’ll take all of us.

When there’s fear—about what the government will do with peoples’ information, or if landlords will have access to the data, or about who will be knocking on our doors—it’ll take all of us. 

When there’s a barrier—like not being able to fill out the form in your language, not having access to technology, or not understanding the importance of being counted—it’ll take all of us. 

When there’s confusion—about which box to check to identify yourself, what information is required in order to participate, or when misinformation is being spread amongst our communities—it’ll take all of us. 

It’ll take all of us. It’ll take YOU. Sharing accurate, relevant, and reliable information. Having this conversation in our neighborhoods, around our block. In our children’s schools, faith groups, and workplaces. With our families, friends, and colleagues. From trusted voices. 

“Text somebody. Share the information. Post on social media. Maybe host an event. Host a dinner on your block. Bring people together and talk about these issues because in this time when we’re being divided, when we’re being pit against each other, we need to do the opposite. We need to bring more people in,” said Minneapolis city council-member Alondra Cano, one of the evening’s panelists. 

What else can you do? 

Work for the census. Positions are flexible, include weekly paychecks with competitive wages, and are a sure way to ensure your neighbors are counted.  

Form a complete count committee. Grants are currently available for nonprofits, neighborhood groups, churches, schools, or anyone working with a fiscal agent to do census work.  

Sign up to volunteer with us. Door-knock or phone-bank to spread information about the census or even assist others in our computer labs as they fill out their form.  

Collaborate. Don’t underestimate the importance of connecting with each other, building relationships, and sharing best practices on how to move this work forward. Panelist Monica Hurtado, Racial Justice and Health Equity Organizer for Voices for Racial Justice, said, “The census can be a tool for our liberation. And I think that’s key—how we are all in this together…It’s about the Latino community, about the Somali community, about the Asian community, about people experiencing homelessness, about kids who are at high risk of being undercounted. So how do we use this to sit around the table and to be together and to be united and understand that the census is in 2020, but the impact of those numbers is going to last for 10 more years?”  

We have a big challenge ahead of us. And to ensure that we are visible, that we are not erased, and that we are all counted, it’ll take all of us.

A day in the life of a community chef

Meals being served at Oak Park community cafe

For the chef at a Pillsbury United Communities community café, the work of preparing a nutritious community meal is an all-day affair. At Oak Park Center, which offers free community dinners Tuesday-Thursday, the chef’s day typically begins around 10 a.m. The chef begins their morning by looking through recent donations and taking stock of the inventory in the fridgeOnce the chef knows what they have on-hand, they can begin crafting a menu for the evening. 

With different ingredients available every day, developing the evening’s menu can require some creativity and experimentation. Every day’s menu is different. The chef has to create a balanced meal that incorporates whatever ingredients they have available, using as many fresh ingredients as possible, in a manner that minimizes food waste. “The number one thing that I look at is vegetation,” says Demetria Fuller, head chef at Oak Park. “Second, I make sure that we have a good starch and protein option. But I start with the vegetables, because we always have a lot of vegetables.” Spaghetti is a favorite with many of Fuller’s regulars; by using eggplant instead of beef in the pasta sauce, she can provide a vegetarian-friendly alternative that even the meat-eaters crave. 

Once the menu is set, meal preparations get underway for the evening around 11 a.m. The chef usually starts with the salad course. Whenever possible, ingredients for the salad are sourced from community gardens at Oak Park and Waite House, which are managed by the Pillsbury United urban agriculture team. Additional produce donations will also arrive from North Market, as well as other community partners. Salad can be kept refrigerated through the day, so it’s an easy task to get out of the way while the café is relatively quiet—all the better to ensure it doesn’t get missed in the commotion as dinner-time approaches. At this time, the chef also begins heating up the steam wells that keep food warm for community café patrons. 

Meal prep continues with the entrees and sides through the afternoon. Typically, a community dinner at Oak Park will serve 50-60 people over the course of a night—but just to be careful, the chef will plan for 70-100 attendees. That way, nobody goes hungry. For tonight’s meal, taco bowls, Fuller is dicing and seasoning chicken, and preparing huge quantities of rice, beans, and corn. At this scale of food preparation, the chef has to carefully manage multiple timers to ensure that nothing burns and everything is ready on time.  

At Oak Park Center, doors open for dinner at 4 p.m., and a handful of enthusiastic community members are usually waiting by the door a few minutes early. Whenever possible, the chef will greet visitors as they arrive. This helps ensure the space is welcoming to all who come through the door. “This is a safe space, with no drama,” Fuller says. “Everybody can come here [and know that] you’re somebody here.” Easy access to the chef also lets community members share their unvarnished feedback about the evening’s menu, which helps inform future meal planning. Dinner service runs until 6 p.m., with the chef remaining on-hand in case any items need replenishment or any issues arise in the dining room. 

Around 6 p.m., the chef begins to close out for the evening. They first put away any leftover food and ingredients; anything that won’t keep in the fridge gets sent home with neighborhood center staff to prevent it going to waste. Then they gather dishes to wash. Trash is taken out, and surfaces get wiped down in the dining room and kitchen. By 8 p.m., the café is cleaned and ready for the next day’s activities. 

Although the chef’s work is sometimes challenging, it matters deeply to the community members who rely on the community café for a warm meal, a safe space, and an opportunity to connect with friends and neighbors. For the chef at a Pillsbury United Communities café, every day is another chance to nourish their community. 

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