Khoua Vang carefully tiptoed Saturday in a vegetable-covered garden outside Hope Lutheran Church in St. Paul and went down on her knees to reap dozens of Japanese sweet potatoes.
She then stood in a shaded corner near the garden, peeled a big potato and ate it with delight. “It tasted really delicious,” Vang later said. “It was sweet and juicy.”
Vang, 60, planted that potato and various other vegetables with three Hmong immigrant women at the Hope Lutheran garden.
The church participates in Farm-Faith Project, which provides immigrant communities in St. Paul with farming opportunities, economic skills and gardening spaces at churches — thanks to the Saint Paul Area Council of Churches and the Hmong American Partnership.
On Saturday, Vang spoke of her gardening experience at Hope Lutheran as part of the Gardening Matters’ Community Day tour.
Vang started farming with her parents in Laos when she was just 5 years old. For the Vang family, farming was a source of income, which the family depended on for survival.
“We used farming for food and for feeding our livestock,” Vang said. “Sometimes we got a lot of vegetables; we sold them to people.”
In 1980, Vang escaped conflict in her homeland and moved to the United States, making St. Paul her new home.
“When we came here, the food we bought from grocery stores had a lot of chemicals,” Vang said. “So we felt that this kind of food made us sick. That’s why we prefer to garden so we can get organic foods to eat.”
The project aims to help immigrant communities in the neighborhood get connected to healthy foods, said Faith-Farm Project Connector Lyda Robb.
“We need more healthy food everywhere,” she added. “And particularly in the east side of St. Paul, where there is a food desert. More opportunities to put healthy food everywhere is really important, and we’re excited about this project.”
Benefits of the project
The Farm-Faith Project connects church congregations with immigrant families in the city to build strong community bonds, Robb said.
“Hope [Lutheran] has a lot of farming programs,” she added. “And the Saint Paul Area Council of Churches was looking for more ways to engage with the community. So it seems like a natural connection and place where people build community.”
Congregation members — who may not have the opportunity for interaction with diverse cultures in their neighborhood — expressed their excitement about the project, Robb said.
“They’re looking for ways to engage with the community,” Robb said of the congregation members, “especially on the east side of St. Paul, where more immigrants and refugees live.”
In addition to building relationships between St. Paul church congregations and immigrant communities, Robb added, the project creates opportunities for immigrants by enhancing their farming skills, creating new jobs and providing job skills for entry into small community businesses.
“It’s really hard to just stay at home all day,” Vang said. “So I really enjoy gardening when I come here. And I enjoy that I can grow some vegetables to eat whenever I want.”
Providing food through gardening
As Maytong Chang, a St. Paul-based family advocate, came of age in the United States, she watched her parents garden all their lives.
Growing up, Chang couldn’t understand why her parents were busy gardening. In fact, she disliked seeing them garden, she recalled.
“When I was younger, I couldn’t understand what that meant,” Chang said of her parents’ farming activities. “But to them, it meant that they could provide food for us. When we came [to the United States], we were on welfare, we were poor.”
Her parents turned to gardening to provide their children with fresh vegetables every summer. And when winter neared: “They would freeze the vegetables, and we were able to get organic vegetables all winter without having to spend much money,” she added.
Today, Chang works closely with the Farm-Faith Project farmers and listens to them as they talk about how gardening is important to them and to their families.
“I’m starting to understand that it’s because they’ve gardened all their lives and it’s something that they were taught to do when they were younger to provide for their families,” she said. “And so they enjoy doing that.”
Our Redeemer Lutheran and Mounds Park United Methodist churches also participate in the Farm-Faith Project.
Ibrahim Hirsi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @IHirsi.