Farm-Faith project connects East Side Hmong-Americans with local churches

Sy Vang harvests some sweet potatoes at the Hope Lutheran Church garden. Vang along with seven other Hmong women worked the gardens this summer, growing a wide variety of food to feed their families and share with friends. (Patrick Larkin/Review)

The Hmong gardeners at Hope Lutheran Church's garden will cook a meal for a small group from the church using ingredients from their garden, including hot peppers, tomatoes, and green mustard. (Patrick Larkin/Review)
With Hmong neighbors and a diverse neighborhood overall, Hope Lutheran Church has been hoping to make better connections with its surrounding Greater East Side community.
Much of the block surrounding Hope Lutheran Church is inhabited by Hmong people, points out Brieanna Trovall, community garden coordinator for the church.
So it only makes sense that the church would want to establish a connection between their neighbors and the congregation. And thanks to a partnership between the St. Paul Area Council of Churches and the Hmong-American Partnership, the church has an outlet for that.
The partnership, dubbed the Farm-Faith Project, has brought Hmong American Partnership members to learn gardening practices at three East Side churches, including Hope Lutheran Church, Mounds Park United Methodist Church, and Our Redeemer Lutheran Church.
"Churches, especially on the East Side, they're interested in how they can better relate to their neighbors," explains Lyda Robb, who coordinates the Farm-Faith Project for the St. Paul Area Council of Churches. "They want to build community."
The project just started this past summer. Churches provide empty space on their properties for gardeners to use, and in turn, the Hmong American Partnership connects Hmong people with the available space.
The idea behind the partnership, according to the SPACC website, is for participants to "gain new farming and economic skills while participating in community building."
Though they are growing food on a very small scale, the gardening skills they learn can be applied to growing larger quantities to sell, Robb says.
In its first year, the project has shown promise and has generated interest from a number of eager gardeners, Robb says, and she expects that will continue to grow. For the 2015 season, two more East Side churches will be added -- Gustavus Adolphus Lutheran Church and Hazel Park United Church of Christ.
Life-long skill
Sy Vang said she likes to come to the vegetable garden because it's therapeutic for her.
She supposes the other Hmong women who garden there have similar reasons.
She recalls growing up in Laos where her family grew crops mostly for subsistence. 
She's been in the Twin Cities for 32 years and can't remember a summer without growing food. 
"All Hmong women love to garden," she asserts, though she laments that her own children haven't had the same experience. They're now grown and don't have any experience gardening, she says.
Many of the Hmong gardeners have been adult women, but high-schoolers have also been involved, Robb says. Through the Hmong American Partnership's Project Grow program, high-schoolers learned how to garden at Mounds Park United Methodist Church. They learned how to produce food to sell at farmers markets, and surveyed farmers at the Hmongtown Marketplace to learn about issues immigrant farmers face.
Sandbox to raised bed
On a small but well-used plot of land alongside Hope Lutheran Church, a broad array of vegetables have been growing this summer. With bok choy, cilantro, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, sweet potato, beans, corn, and more, the small garden looks like a veritable cornucopia of produce.
Trovall, community garden director at Hope Lutheran Church, said the program's done wonders for the church's yard.
The church started a community garden three years ago, replacing a defunct sandbox from a daycare with a series of raised bed gardens. 
They made 20 plots total, but only had a couple of gardeners using the plots.
With no one taking care of the plots, church staff ended up maintaining the beds, which were full of weeds.
But then, the St. Paul Area Council of Churches gave Trovall a call, and asked if they'd be involved with the Farm-Faith Project.
"It worked," Trovall said. "We ended up having a full garden this year."
The gardeners consist of six Hmong East Siders, and four other gardeners from the neighborhood. 
The plots were filled with vegetable plants, and neighbors passing through would stop by and sit at the picnic tables onsite, enjoying the view and atmosphere the gardens provide.
On Sunday, Sept. 21, the Hmong gardeners will have cooked a meal using food from the garden and presented it to a small group of people from the congregation. On the menu: chicken cooked with green mustard, salt and lemon grass.
Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at Follow him on Twitter at @ESRPatrickLark.
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