On September 14, 2,000 people will join artists and food activists at a half-mile long table down the center of Victoria Street in St. Paul as part of “CREATE: The Community Meal”
—a public art project headed by artist Seitu Jones. Designed as a creative “food system intervention,” the project aims to lower barriers to healthy food access in some of city’s most densely populated and culturally diverse communities.
While a lot of work is being done in cities to address issues surrounding healthy food access, CREATE is taking a new approach. “We’re making this an artistic experience from the minute 2,000 people walk through the gate,” says Christine Podas-Larson, president of Public Art Saint Paul
, which is orchestrating the project.
Everything will have an artistic touch, from the movements of the servers and hosts, which will be choreographed by Ananya Dance Theatre
, to the blessing by poet G.E Patterson, right down to the 2,000 placemats handcrafted by paper artist Mary Hark using only bio-matter collected from the yards, alleyways and parks of the Frogtown neighborhood.
Spoken word artists including TouSaiko Lee, Deeq Abdi, Laureine Chang, Nimo Farah and Rodrigo Sanchez will perform original pieces with youth from Frogtown and Cedar-Riverside. Their work will investigate food traditions of the various cultures that make up the community.
Artists Emily Stover and Asa Hoyt are fabricating several Mobile ArtKitchens to demonstrate healthy food preparation around the city. They will be hosted by youth from the Kitty Andersen Science Center at the Science Museum of Minnesota and Youth Farm.
Chef James Baker, of Elite Catering Company and the Sunny Side Café—
regularly voted best soul food restaurant in the Twin Cities —will prepare the meal with local ingredients grown specifically for the event by area farmers.
Guests will be presented with a healthy, locally sourced spread that includes 500 free-range chickens from a farm in Northfield, several vegetable dishes like collard greens and salad, an Ethiopian Bean dish from Flamingo Ethiopian Restaurant’s
menu, corn bread and more.
Many of the growers, including those from Minneapolis-based Stones Throw Urban Farm
and the Hmong American Farmers Association
, are based in the Frogtown and Summit-University neighborhoods. The Minnesota Food Association
is overseeing all the food production and sourcing.
“This is an opportunity for folks to meet their farmers,” Jones says. “Most of the funds are going into the pockets of farmers and artists. So this is an effort also to really pay attention to the local economy.”
Jones was inspired to put on this massive community meal while sitting in his storefront studio in Frogtown. He noticed an endless parade of people walking to the local convenience store and returning with bags of groceries. “Many times those bags would be filled not with fruits or vegetable, but with pre-packaged food,” he says.
Along with a group of local food activists, he received a grant from the USDA to do a food assessment of Districts 4, 5, 7 and 8 in St. Paul. He expected many of the obstacles the group found preventing residents from making healthy food choices, such as cost and convenience. One finding came as a surprise though.
“People don’t know how to make a healthy meal,” Jones says. “While we intuitively know what a healthy meal is, there are some folks that have lost the ability to prepare [one]…it wasn’t passed on.”
Jones began hosting small healthy community meals in residents’ homes, backyards and driveways more than a year ago, collecting “food stories” along the way. One story, told by Va-Megn Thoj, of the Asian Economic Development Association
, chronicles his family’s journey across the Mekong River while fleeing oppression in Laos.
On arriving at a refugee camp in Thailand, he encountered a bright red fruit he had never seen before at a vendor’s stand. The vendor cut him off a chunk to try. The tart sweetness of every apple he has eaten since brings him back to that day, he says.
“We all have these food stories, and these stories are written in fats, carbohydrates and nutrients,” Jones says. “These stories go back for generations.”
Podas-Larson says Public Art St. Paul is also helping create community meal kits to help communities around the country host their own healthy meal events. Visit the CREATE website
to donate, learn more, read more food stories and sign up to host your own table at the community meal.
“Food is so universal. Food is something that we all share, and most importantly…food defines us,” Jones says. “In many cultures, the way it’s prepared can be this act of love, and that’s what the community meal is. It is an act of love.”