In Urban Gardens Without Borders, Project Sweetie Pie Plants Seeds for Food Justice and Freedom

November 16, 2018 |

Michael Chaney, founder of Project Sweetie Pie, an urban farming movement based in Northern Minnesota to seed healthy changes in the community. Photo Credit: Karl Hakanson.

“North Minneapolis is going green
Give us a call and learn what we mean
Where once lay urban blight
Now sits luscious garden sites
Gardens without borders
Classrooms without walls
Architects of our own destinies
Access to food justice for all.” 

    – Michael Chaney, Project Sweetie Pie

In a collaborative effort to revitalize the economy and the community of North Minneapolis, Project Sweetie Pie, an urban farming movement working to seed healthy changes in the community, has as one of its principal goals the mentorship of 500 local youth in growing food, obtaining practical sales and marketing skills, and becoming leaders. Launched in 2010 Project Sweetie Pie has made great strides towards this goal by aligning dozens of community partners with hundreds of urban youth to implement community garden and farm stand initiatives, which together have resulted in a framework for a more self-sufficient and self-aware urban community.

“Before we went to Big Ag and big food and everything was so impersonal, we were really small villages and hamlets. You knew everyone in the village and you worked much like a family,” says Michael Chaney, Project Sweetie Pie founder and community thought leader for Minneapolis’ North Side. “If we’re really going to offset the greed of the Monsantos of the world well… if they get control of the seeds then we’ll all be slaves. So how do we go about stemming that tide from individualism and corporate greed to really figuring out how we as a community can support the growth and development of all the children and families?”

In 2010, to begin to solve for this challenge Chaney approached a fellow environmental activist and restaurant owner with a proposition – would the restaurant owner buy sweet potatoes from him if he could enlist students from the local school, which was under threat of closure, to grow them? The answer was yes. Chaney then approached the school to see if he could teach gardening and Project Sweetie Pie was born. Various community partners quickly joined the fray helping to plant gardens throughout the neighborhood, which would in turn be farmed by local students. In three years Project Sweetie Pie has grown from five gardens planted on empty urban lots donated by local residents and 50 community partners to 25 gardens and 130 community partners. A school was saved. A movement was born.

“People are always asking me what we should grow,” says Chaney. “We’re building a movement. We’re really growing the infrastructure. That’s more important.”

Project Sweetie Pie is now the umbrella name that covers the many projects, programs, and initiatives being implemented by Chaney and his network of activists, volunteers, gardeners, and supporters. From scattering community gardens across the city and teaching local youth how to grow their own food and sell the surplus, Chaney is hoping to spread the underlying concepts of food freedom and self-determination. He feels that food justice issues are often overlooked or minimized in the slow food movement as priorities over organic labeling and irrigation methods take up so much time and attention.

“At the base and theory of it is that we have become so individualized,” says Chaney. “How can we shift that paradigm from communities, particularly low income communities that have become marginalized? How can we work with folks so they can become part of the free enterprise system, and that they are not merely there for the sake of being consumers? […] how do we give them the skills so they can become producers?”

To help move the needle, Chaney joined other Minnesota activists in pushing forward a new urban agriculture bill. “Myself and others went to the Council on Black Minnesotans and we created the first of its kind legislation that in populations of 10,000 or more in the state of Minnesota that land be set aside for urban farming and that there be monies allocated from the Minnesota Department of Ag to do demonstration projects,” he says.

If funds are allocated, Project Sweetie Pie hopes to execute its latest demonstration project, a school-based greenhouse to teach students how to produce food and value added products during the winter.

Chaney’s overarching goal with Project Sweetie Pie is to keep growing the framework for food freedom in Minneapolis, to debunk myths about who should farm and who shouldn’t, and to dispel assumptions regarding things such as poverty rates and the location of food desserts.

“We have to debunk myths, because poverty and hunger is always conveniently placed in racial terms instead of really looking at the facts of the matter,” says Chaney. “There are large tracts of land all over the world where people who once farmed them left farming behind and went to the big city. The skills of generations before them were pretty much shelved and people came to the conclusion that now we’ll let Big Ag grow our food.”

“I think it’s incumbent on all of us, regardless of where we come from, that we should know how to grow food so we can survive,” says Chaney. “If we’re not sharing that, if we’re not passing that information on, if we’re turning our nose up at it and saying that’s not for me? That’s insanity.”