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.

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.”

North Market selling local produce, supporting local farmers

Local produce on sale at North Market

Since they opened their doors in December of 2017, North Market has been working to address food access issues and health disparities in North Minneapolis by uniting three elements in one place: affordable nutritious food, health care services, and wellness education. Staying true to its roots of being built with and for the community, they’ve been purposeful about supporting local entrepreneurs. Right now, you can find products from over 47 local vendors on their shelves. And what’s new this summer? Hyperlocal produce from North Minneapolis farmers. Yep—zucchini, kale, tomatoes, and more picked within just a few blocks.

By purchasing food from local farmers, North Market is able to fulfill its mission of providing affordable healthy food AND acting as an engine for local economic growth. Vanan Murugesan, Director of Design and Innovation at Pillsbury United Communities, said:

“We want to expose the community to the great food businesses that are growing in North Minneapolis and when people buy stuff from the community, it’s keeping the money in the neighborhood. So, we are just a platform for people to connect. On one side we have the customers and on the other we have the farmers and entrepreneurs, and we provide this platform for them to do business. At the end of the day, someone in the neighborhood can enjoy food that was made within 2 miles of where they live and there is something special about that.

Not only does this mean customers can access produce harvested sometimes as freshly as the same day, but they can simultaneously support a local food system along the way. One of the partners providing vegetables to the store is Growing North Minneapolis, a community-based collaborative that advances environmental, social, and racial justice in North Minneapolis. Patsy Parker, a Community Garden Steward with Growing North, said that “The impact of the sales allows us to start planning for next year. So we can think about, ‘Ok, next year, what kind of seeds do we need? Can we actually buy seeds as opposed to just waiting ‘til the spring and hoping someone can bring them to us?’ Traditionally, North Minneapolis has not had good access to seeds and seedlings. We’re learning what it is that people want and what people need. You know—we need to plant a lot more okra.”

Another source of freshly grown produce is from our Pillsbury United Communities farm at Oak Park Center. Proceeds made from these sales will be reinvested into the larger urban agriculture and food work that we do here at PUC, allowing us to provide more education and technical support to local farmers while having extra funds to help purchase food for our food shelves and community meals—two programs where we’ve seen an increase in need and decrease in philanthropic funding .

All of this to say, it seems to be a win for everyone—customers, farmers, and North Market alike. Customers can spend their dollars on the freshest produce possible from the backyards of North Minneapolis (also a win for the environment). Local growers can increase their economic mobility or continue to fuel urban agriculture work in North Minneapolis from their sales. And North Market can help fill a food access gap by not just providing healthy food to the neighborhood, but being intentional about sourcing from and supporting that neighborhood when possible. Because if we are serious about working to close the disparities in North Minneapolis and Minnesota, then it’s going to require creative, transformative solutions.

Full Cycle delivers food and more by bike

Full Cycle bicycle food deliveries

On May 23, 2019 the team at Full Cycle made their first food delivery of the spring. The weather was great, everyone biked hard, and most importantly 150 meals were delivered to transitional living programs in Minneapolis.  Food delivery by bike is just one of the many programs offered by Full Cycle, a social enterprise bicycle shop in south Minneapolis, MN that offers support and connection to young people experiencing homelessness.

Young people who have experience with homelessness can make an appointment to pick out and help fix a bike they can use for transportation. The free bikes also function to relieve stress, provide a fun outlet, and allow youth to practice being self-reliant. In addition, bike appointments are a natural way for youth and youth workers to get to know each other and how Full Cycle can be useful.

Full Cycle also offers youth a two-phase, six-month-long paid internship, which teaches a structured mechanic curriculum and imparts professional knowledge like résumé writing. The idea is to give kids a complete set of skills—not just the know-how to work on bikes.

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