Project Sweetie Pie: Community support learned at grass roots

Michael Chaney, the founder and director of Project Sweetie Pie, believes that gardens are only the beginning in the North Minneapolis neighborhood fostering his project.
For more information about Project Sweetie Pie, visit projectsweetiepie.org.

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

Michael Chaney, the founder and director of Project Sweetie Pie, recites this poem in the middle of Karamu Community Garden in North Minneapolis. His goal: To revitalize the neighborhood by building a stable food system, armed only with volunteer support.

Four years into the project, more than 30 gardens and 130 partners are producing food for the surrounding community.

“Gardens are only the beginning,” Chaney said.

Project Sweetie Pie is an initiative started in 2010 by an afro-eco environmental group concerned about the closing of North High School. Through the program, Chaney and his volunteers hope to create a gathering space for their neighborhood while giving kids the opportunity to work on a life skills project.

(The garden) “is in essence our town square for Plymouth Avenue. We’ll start doing health initiatives, storytelling and reading to kids in the garden. This is just the first phase of it. Ultimately, there will be benches, banners and businesses (in the area),” Chaney said.

Project Sweetie Pie is also teaching the community how to grow its own food—which is sorely needed in an area that lacks access and information. Some of the produce in the garden includes tomatoes, cucumbers, herbs, cauliflower, broccoli, onions and kale. All produce is planted and later harvested by members of the community.

Before his work with the organization, Chaney worked for KMSP-TV, the Wendell Phillips Community Development Federal Credit Union and also started the Juneteenth Celebration in North Minneapolis. Chaney hopes this project will “grow farmers, grow gardens, and grow support of this community.”

A humble, dedicated volunteer, Chaney is the first to tell you that he is not the only person lending a hand—“I am just a guy in the neighborhood,” he said. It’s a complex story with multiple moving parts. While Chaney focuses on Project Sweetie Pie, others are collaborating through the development of such programs as the Clean Bill of Health Initiative and the Youth Cafe.

“It takes a whole village to raise a child,” Chaney said.

One of the roughly 130 partners is Black Storytellers Alliance. Nothando Zulu, president of the group, serves as the caretaker and founder of the Karamu Community Garden—the “town square” of Project Sweetie Pie.

(The food) “is for the residents of this community. It has to be communal so that the community understands that the garden is open to everyone,” Zulu said.

If they have any extra food, it is donated to North Point Food Shelf.

“We started from wood chips and dirt,” Zulu said. Now, she’s proud to see community members helping weed, taking care of plants and participating in social activities.

Another partner is the city of Minneapolis’ STEP UP program, a summer jobs initiative for youth. Adam Pruitt, a 16-year-old homeschooled student who works at the garden, hopes to “get (more) young people out” in North Minneapolis. He also believes that through Project Sweetie Pie, “there are not any obstacles that we can’t get over.”

Demetria Fuller, another 16-year-old student volunteer, learned how to garden from her father. She likes to bring her family and friends to help out.

“It makes me happy, and it makes (the North side) a better place,” she said.

This year, the organization was selected as one of five projects in the nation to receive a grant through the U.S. Council of Mayors and Miracle-Gro’s GRO1000 program. The funding was used to build Karamu Community Garden and purchase three years of supplies.

Community outreach also extends to local companies and farmers to preserve and distribute pesticide-free produce grown in the gardens. Neighborhood chef Eric Austin, known as “Chef E” to locals, delivers presentations at Oak Park Community Center each week so residents understand how to use vegetables from the garden in their own homes.

Aesthetic appeal is the final element of Project Sweetie Pie, Chaney said.

Community member Willie Gregg, who designed Karamu Community Garden, enjoyed the process of “taking a space and thinking about its possibilities.” He added that there’s always potential in an empty parking lot.

Now, Karamu Community Garden’s luscious green grass and myriad food, colors and smells are a welcome sight for a neighborhood where many homes are in need of repair. It allows residents to come together with pride.

“It is a much bigger story, and it is a collaboration of everybody working together,” Chaney said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Katie Braman is a junior at St. Paul Academy and Summit School. Her story on Project Sweetie Pie is part of a package by 12 high school students who participated in ThreeSixty Journalism’s residential Intermediate Camp from June 15 to June 27.

Their stories are centered on youth organizations in the metro area that are cultivating the “next generation” of leaders. Click here to read more from ThreeSixty’s summer camp series.

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