Data science, human services elevated within Pillsbury United leadership

An update from our leadership team

Pillsbury United Communities is pleased to announce several key moves in the agency’s executive leadership team, including the creation of a new executive-level position centered around data science and evaluation.

Tsega Tamene has stepped into the newly established role of Head of Data Science & Evaluation. In this role, she stewards Pillsbury United’s vision and strategy to activate data for impact—transforming how the agency defines, captures, and implements data toward systems change. She previously served as Senior Director of Population Health.

“Data will drive the evolution of our organization and our transformative impact in community,” says Adair Mosley, President & CEO of Pillsbury United Communities. “Pillsbury United Communities seeks to have a population-level impact on systems that create more equitable and just outcomes for our communities. Tsega, with her population health background, will drive upstream change and targeted and predictive program and services.”

Accompanying this new role, several additional Pillsbury United leaders have been named to new or elevated roles.

Ethan Neal has been named to the newly created position of Director of Food Systems. In this role, he oversees all of the agency’s food programs, including food shelves, community meal programs, and urban agriculture, and he drives all of the agency’s efforts towards the creation of a local, sustainable, equitable food system. He previously served as Food Systems Manager.

Awol Windissa has been named to the position of Director of Community Health. In this role, he oversees all community health and wellness programs, with a particular focus on removing barriers to health; promoting wellness; reducing disparities; and implementing place-based, community-centered and culturally-relevant approaches. Awol previously served as Community Health Manager at Brian Coyle Center.

Additionally, current leadership team members Miski Abdulle and Vickie Besch have received promotions to Director of Immigrant Services and Director of Community Accessibility, respectively.

Click here to view Pillsbury United’s strategic framework and learn more about our agency’s strategic priorities.

Food shelves meeting the challenge of COVID-19

Food shelf worker distributing produce to community members

As we reach the first anniversary of COVID lockdowns, it’s worth looking back at the vital response of our food shelves at Brian Coyle Center and Waite House—and the huge efforts they’ve undertaken to show up for the communities that have been hit the hardest in our city.

It’s hard to fathom the scale of their effort. When the first wave of stay-at-home orders began, our food shelves were serving more than three times their usual volume. We were serving more households, and more frequently, than ever before. We kept up that pace all year—and by the end of December, we had distributed nearly one million pounds of food to our neighbors.

“What we have to understand is the operational context of that volume,” says Ethan Neal, Director of Food Systems at Pillsbury United Communities. With changes to the food shelf’s operational model to facilitate social distancing, staff took on a more active role in packaging and distributing food to clients. “That’s a lot of pounds of food on the backs of our people,” Ethan says.

This was a truly unprecedented effort for Pillsbury United Communities. Here’s more about how we stepped up to the challenge—and how you can help us continue this work in 2021 and beyond.

A creative approach in times of crisis

Social distancing guidelines required our team to physically reimagine our food shelves—finding new spaces, and creatively repurposing others. At Waite House, the food shelf team expanded to utilize space in an unused gymnasium.

“We started seeing such an influx in the number of people we were serving,” Ethan says, “That we needed to stretch our legs and utilize one of the largest properties in Minneapolis Parks & Rec.”

And with the lockdowns also affecting our neighbors’ access to essential hygiene items, our food shelves significantly expanded their offerings of diapers, feminine hygiene products, and other household necessities. At Brian Coyle Center, we partnered with our neighbors across the street at Mixed Blood Theatre to organize essential supply drives as a supplement to our food assistance.

“We became much more than just a food shelf,” Ethan says, “and I think that evolution was important in our response.”

Justice and equity in food access

And while COVID-19 forced our team to think creatively and reimagine their work, it also underscored the importance of several long-standing commitments for our agency’s food programs.

“When you think of a food shelf, you think of a model that’s based on canned food drives,” Ethan says. “At Pillsbury United, we’ve pledged a lot of our dollars to source healthy, culturally specific foods to serve our communities.” That means more access to fresh produce, as well as culturally relevant staples that reflect the tastes of our Native, Latin American, and East African neighbors.

“[As an agency] we talk about food justice and equity,” says Jovita Morales, food shelf coordinator at Waite House. “And if we don’t reflect our diversity in our food shelves, that’s not equity.”

“And you don’t see that everywhere,” adds Luz Francisco, building and volunteer coordinator at Waite House. “People in the community can come to us and know that we have foods they’ll want to eat.”

This approach was central to our work pre-COVID, and only became more urgent in response to the pandemic. To that end, we redoubled our commitment to urban agriculture across our entire food system and installed a walk-in cooler at the Waite House food shelf to house more fresh produce. And for those culturally specific preferences that our food bank partners couldn’t meet, we established new relationships with local, minority-owned grocery stores to help fill the gap.

How you can help

There is so much more to be said about the vital response of our food shelves and our many other staff providing essential, frontline services.

Today, you can help support this work with a financial contribution. During the month of March, our partners at Minnesota FoodShare are offering a partial match for all donations to Pillsbury United food shelves. If you’re able, please give today. 

Food assistance is available via the food shelves at Waite House and Brian Coyle Center, as well as via our community meal programs at Waite House and Oak Park Center

Jihan Rashid named Director of Community Health Worker Hub

Community health worker and community members meeting outside Brian Coyle Center

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — Pillsbury United Communities has named Jihan Rashid as Director of Community Health Worker Hub.

In this role, Jihan will oversee the agency’s Community Health Worker Hub, a new initiative aimed at elevating the role of community health workers in providing culturally informed, holistic, and coordinated care for communities that have been historically underserved by traditional health care systems.

As part of this effort, Jihan will drive the agency’s adoption of the Pathways Community HUB framework, a certified, evidence-based model for community care coordination that will reduce costs, improve health care outcomes, and center the cultural knowledge of community health workers. This work is being undertaken in partnership with Blue Cross Blue Shield, the Minnesota Community Health Worker Alliance, and many local health care systems.

“The Pathways Community HUB’s care coordination system is vital for our communities,” said Rashid, “Because it centers strong community relationships through community health workers, upholds accountability for outcome of health and wellness services, and emphasizes care for the most vulnerable in our communities.

“Jihan brings to Pillsbury United a breadth of experience in public health, Medicaid transformation, coalition-building, and community participation in systems change,” said Tsega Tamene, Senior Director of Population Health at Pillsbury United Communities. “She understands the critical gaps and opportunities in healthcare sustainability. We are excited for her vision and leadership to drive this work.”

Jihan has been committed to public health since high school and has worked with a vast array of public health issues (including nutrition, HIV, lead exposure, and air pollution) through research, program management, and public health education.

In her past role as a program coordinator with the Somali Health Board, Jihan facilitated a one-of-a-kind community-led health model, supporting it from its infancy to its establishment as a community-based organization. Subsequently, she drove the establishment of a coalition of like-minded community health boards to collaborate across communities. In addition to her work in program management, community engagement, research and policy-system advocacy, she has also worked as a caregiver, tutor, peer educator, and victim advocate.

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.

Summer 2020: youth programs by the numbers

Summer 2020—and our agency’s summer youth programs—have officially wrapped up. As you can expect in light of a post-COVID world, programming these past few months has looked quite different compared to summers past. Yet despite the added challenges of navigating daily life during a global pandemic, our young folks still took the time to learn and develop their personal and professional skillsets, create powerful multimedia content, and step up to support their community.

Here’s a quick breakdown of what our young folks were up to in summer 2020:

  • 19 urban agriculture interns, in partnership with the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum’s Growing Good initiative, learned how to grow and cook their own food from home!
  • 14 food shelf interns helped neighbors meet their essential needs surrounding food access and crucial services by running our food shelves, making and serving hot meals, and delivering food parcels and prescriptions to elders and families
  • 8 Roots for the Home Team interns grew produce and designed a signature salad using culturally relevant and locally grown ingredients. The cancellation of summer baseball meant they couldn’t sell their salads at Twins games, as in past summers—so instead, they partnered with Open Arms to prepare and distribute fresh salads to thousands of individuals living with chronic illness across the Twin Cities Metro.
  • 7 youth researchers examined issues pertaining to mental health and addiction in the Phillips community, deepening their civic engagement and sense of community connection.
  • Plus 73 paid interns hosted at Pillsbury United social enterprises, including:
    • Sisterhood Boutique, our youth-managed fashion consignment store in Cedar Riverside, where young women cultivated their business savvy and leadership skills;
    • KRSM Radio, our radio station in the Phillips community, where youth learned audio production skills (including podcasting and DJing) to share their reflections on the death of George Floyd, COVID-19, and other issues that matter to them.
    • Brian Coyle Best Buy Teen Tech Center, a space for young people in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood to explore their digital creativity.

All in all, we got the opportunity to work with 121 talented and hard-working young people this summer, engaging them in a mix of virtual and in-person programming across our various agency sites and programs.

While these programs provided valuable opportunities for growth and development, what’s also important—if not more important—is that these programs provided safe and supportive spaces for young people to socially connect and express themselves. As we enter into the new school year with the uncertainty of a socially distanced “new normal,” the power of those connections can’t be overstated.

Intersecting People, Place, and Prosperity

Young girls playing on Broadway Ave during Open Streets

The Upstream Imperative, Volume 5

This article is part of “The Upstream Imperative,” a series exploring the challenges and opportunities facing the social services sector.

By Adair Mosley, President and CEO, Pillsbury United Communities

What future do we see for our neighborhoods in the Twin Cities?

Will they be places where everyone can raise families, build wealth, and live full, healthy lives? Or will they be exclusive enclaves where newcomers prosper and long-term residents are pushed to the margins?

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, this dilemma is stark. The damage to large sections of our city is further stressing a population — largely Black, brown, and indigenous — that was already in danger of displacement. Decades of systemic racism and inequity sparked the destruction. Now these pressures threaten an even greater crisis for our community.

We have a choice. We can prioritize rebuilding with and for Black and brown residents. Or watch as these neighborhoods rise again, but without those who have lived and labored there for generations.

A History of Erasure

We didn’t arrive at this point overnight. Starting a century ago, redlining and exclusionary lending practices shut Black and brown families out of many Twin Cities neighborhoods and the wealth-building opportunities they enabled. Black people built thriving communities in spite of these restrictions, only to see their neighborhoods bulldozed and cut off by interstate construction.

In the intervening decades, Black neighborhoods in the Twin Cities have been stuck with “lesser than” status. They are continually passed over for public and private investments — with devastating social and economic consequences. Now we see the pendulum swinging back. As outside developers move to “revitalize” areas of the city they long ignored, “white flight in reverse” threatens to erase the people and culture in these areas.

To be clear, we want investment in our neighborhoods. But unless Black, brown and indigenous people are driving the change, Minneapolis will continue to grow less equitable at their expense.

The Rise of Community Development

In a difficult moment, we see reasons for hope. Across the U.S., community development corporations are proving that inclusive neighborhoods are possible when communities work together.

These projects don’t arise from shallow or short-term community input. Developers must be willing to see vulnerable residents, meet them where they are, and center their voices and needs before and after ground is broken. Equitable development has to start from a place of deep understanding and connection.

That’s where we’ve lived for over 140 years. Pillsbury United Communities is committed to ensuring every person has personal, social, and economic power. Through a focus on solving big, upstream challenges, we create enduring change toward a just society.

That mission puts equitable economic development squarely on our agenda.<

Owning the Solution

Pillsbury United is making moves to prevent gentrification and displacement of marginalized residents with the creation of Justice Built Communities (JBC). A new community development corporation for the Greater Twin Cities and beyond, JBC acts as a community quarterback to prioritize integrated, inclusive approaches to neighborhood revitalization.

Our process starts by identifying underused buildings, vacant lots and other assets that can anchor neighborhood redevelopment. Then we bring together the partners, capital, and vision to realize their potential. JBC banks and secures these assets until properties are developed and Black and brown-owned enterprises take over.

Instead of outsiders telling people, “Here’s what you need,” we ask, “What can we do together?” JBC ensures the voices of our communities are heard alongside businesses, builders, and banks in the service of a shared agenda. Working together, we advance many priorities critical for our community, from neighborhood investment and beautification to education and job creation.

Arts and culture are central to that effort. Through artist-driven engagement and creative placemaking, we empower residents to define what thriving, beautiful neighborhoods look like to them. Artists and residents continue to collaborate as developments take shape to create spaces that honor the unique history and culture of the place.

Transformation from the Inside Out

Pillsbury United is not new to this work. In 2017, we led the development of North Market, a grocery store and wellness center in one of the country’s largest food deserts. Created with North Minneapolis community members and partners including North Memorial Health, our solution addresses multiple needs in one place, from fresh food to accessible health services.

The impact goes beyond essential services. North Market provides career-track jobs, buys from local businesses and entrepreneurs, and feeds the vitality of the neighborhood as a whole.

JBC works in the same way. We use the tools of community development to promote quality education, workforce training, small businesses investment, and land ownership, while awarding contracts to local people and organizations that will reinvest in the community. Our encompassing approach spurs the creation of generational wealth and helps put communities on the path to self-sufficiency.

To that end, JBC is advancing equitable policy side by side with equitable development. We use our access and partnerships to advocate for measures such as Renters Bill of Rights legislation and Community Benefit Agreements that protect local residents before and after projects open their doors.

Our goal is transformation from the inside out. We are banking on the creativity, talent, and energy that have always existed in our Black and brown communities. By amplifying their voices and letting their vision lead ours, we can eliminate racial disparities, remove urban blight, and help our communities of color equitably share in the vibrant economy of our state. JBC is how we reimagine not only our cities, but the systems that shape people’s lives here.

If we want strong neighborhoods that include everyone and work for everyone, we can’t leave it to outsiders. It’s up to us to build them.

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.

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.

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. 

Growing food as medicine

Community member in urban garden

“Food from the earth,” is what Jessica Thurin, Dietician at the Native American Community Clinic (NACC), referred to it as. As members of an indigenous-led network of organizations in South Minneapolis’ Phillips community working towards healthy food access, the 24th Street Urban Farm Coalition, we’re trying out something new this year: going back to the basics. Back to the earth. Back to traditional methods of healing and nourishing by focusing on food as medicine.

NACC, located just two blocks from our Waite House Community Center, provides a range of healthcare and social services to the surrounding, largely Native community. In an area with significant health disparities, recognizing the role food access has to play in determining health outcomes is critical. Many healthcare institutions might talk to their patients about the benefits of healthy eating without really recognizing or addressing the barriers that exist to do exactly that—where to find this food, how to afford it and access it. That’s why our urban agriculture program teamed up with them to begin providing boxes of freshly grown vegetables to their patients. This produce, grown right in their own neighborhood, will be sold to NACC and distributed to their diabetes groups starting this September free-of-charge in an effort to promote healthy eating and lower blood sugar levels.

“You can be taking all these diabetes medications, but if you have a high carbohydrate diet with breads and pastas and not having a lot of non-starchy veggies which is what is from the garden—that can really cause high blood sugars. And so medications can help, but it’s not everything…I think introducing more foods that are right in our backyard can really help prevent some of these chronic diseases and that’s really what we’re after,” Thurin explains.

And NACC isn’t the only place recognizing the power of food in this way. With another one of our gardens, this is our second year of providing CSA packages to the City of Minneapolis’ Lead and Healthy Homes program. Families are referred to their program when elevated lead levels have been detected within their body, after which they are moved to transitional ‘Safe Houses’ while their homes are removed of lead hazards. While in these safe homes, families receive visits from public health nurses as well as deliveries of our food boxes packed full of freshly grown kale, broccoli, collards, and more. The reasoning, Jim Doten, Environmental Services Supervisor for the City’s Health Department, explains, is because “there’s a link between nutrition and susceptibility to lead poisoning.” If someone is deficient in certain nutrients, especially iron, then their body is more likely to absorb lead. So with this program in particular, our farmers are purposely growing more iron-rich foods that are proven to prevent further lead absorption while also lowering existing levels in the body. Alex Vollmar, supervisor of this program, sees the addition of these CSA boxes as a “very holistic approach to responding to elevated blood levels.”

Back to the basics. Remembering how for thousands of years, indigenous communities have used food for nourishment and healing. It’s something that’s often overlooked now, but so necessary to address in order to close health disparities. As members of the 24th Street Urban Farm Coalition, we look forward to continue moving this work forward alongside NACC, Indian Health Board, and other coalition members. Thurin says,

“Food is medicine. I don’t think a lot of people know that. But our ancestors definitely did that. They used food as medicine. They used traditional medicine plants. I really think that’s important to bring that back now.”

Health fairs offer knowledge and connection in Phillips and Cedar Riverside

Health worker at Waite House health fair

It’s a beautiful August day: sunny, a few clouds, not too hot. Outside Waite House in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis, more than a hundred of our neighbors are listening to music (courtesy of KRSM Radio), jumping in an inflatable bounce house, and catching up with their friends. Conversations waft through the air, a sampling of the hundred-plus languages spoken by residents of one of our city’s most diverse communities.

Although the vibe is casual and friendly, the occasion today is a serious one: Today is the Phillips Health Fair, and health is on everyone’s mind. Here, and at a similar event at Brian Coyle Center in Cedar Riverside earlier this month, more than 40 partner organizations have assembled to share their knowledge and resources with the community.

By connecting our neighbors to local health care resources, we eliminate barriers to access and give them the tools to take a more active role in the care that they and their families receive. But it goes deeper than that. Social connectedness is a powerful predictor of overall health outcomes; people are healthier when they talk to their neighbors.

According to Tsega Tamene, director of community health at Pillsbury United Communities, this is the critical role the health fairs serve. “We’re creating a space for people to connect, to learn, to play,” she says.

And in a space where so much of the conversation around community health focuses on the health disparities that exist within indigenous communities and communities of color, the Phillips and Coyle health fairs provide a platform for the individuals and organizations who are already working towards a solution. Rather than creating new efforts and duplicative work, Tamene says the health fairs succeed by “lifting up resources that are already there in the community.”

Tamene is quick to point out that the health fairs couldn’t happen without dedicated organizers—Jovita and Awol, at Waite House and Brian Coyle respectively—driving new partnerships at the local level and activating the grassroots energy of their friends, colleagues, and neighbors. It all comes down to the relationships our center staff have built throughout the community.

Ultimately, our health fairs are one solution within a multifaceted approach to community health. As researchers in the field of public health can tell us, the health of our communities is impacted by any number of factors, from education, to food access, to transportation. It’s hard to deny that these systems have failed many of our neighbors. But despite the complex challenges that our communities are living with, it’s clear that a dedicated effort is underway—and for one August afternoon in Phillips and Cedar Riverside, we get a brief glimpse of what a healthier and more connected future looks like.

(Click here for photos from the Brian Coyle Health Fair.)

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