LUVERNE, Minn. - There are few things Kim Rockman remembers of her childhood growing up in Luverne, Minnesota. It’s a small, agricultural town in western Minnesota, home to a population of less than 5,000. It didn’t make for a thrilling childhood.
One thing Rockman distinctly remembers, however, is how the town, with a majority-white population, responded after a handful of African refugee families moved in during the ‘80s.
“I remember them basically being ignored by the community,” Rockman said. “Rather than blatant in your face racism, a lot of times, minorities were just ignored, which, in some ways, is more hurtful to folks.”
Fast-forward 20 years, and today, Luverne is a small town that is fighting to stay alive. Although the majority of the community is still white, minority groups are more prominent than before. Rockman, who is president and executive director of Project Food Forest, wants to make sure the organization can help strengthen the connection between minority groups and the rest of the community.
One of the most pressing issues the town, along with Rock County, faces, is the lack of access they have to sustainable food. Rock County is classified by the national government as a low-income, low-access area for food. In other words, it’s a food desert.
Food insecurity has long been a problem disproportionately affecting people of color.
Just earlier this month, the Minnesota House approved a resolution declaring “racism as a public health issue.”
Racism, and the unequal distribution of resources for people of color, can result in an influx of health problems. Minnesota, especially, ranks among the country’s lowest for racial equity. According to Census Bureau data, we have the second largest inequality income gap in the nation, and the worst education achievement gap among the 50 states. Food insecurity is just one way racism presents itself as a public health issue.
Among the goals of Project Food Forest, a nonprofit organization based in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, is to educate people to allow them to supplement their own food needs by harvesting plants on their own, and serving as a community space for people of all backgrounds to come together.
Some minority groups, however, see planting food as potentially discomforting, given the history of agriculture being characterized by enslavement and oppression. Rockman recognizes the importance of approaching growing food from the right angle.
“We’re having those considerations,” she said, “and approaching growing food in a way that it’s about food sovereignty and about reclaiming not only from a historical perspective but as well as being a member in the community who’s involved with public work as a way of healing.”
COVID-19 has disproportionately had an impact on Black, Indigenous, and communities of color. Rock County has had 77 positive cases of coronavirus. Additionally, many BIPOC workers working in meat plants in the area have been recently exposed to the virus.
Project Food Forest cancelled improvement and renovations scheduled for the garden, in addition to cancelling group events for the summer. One way they have adjusted their work is by creating videos about gardening they hope will inspire people to do similar work in their own communities.
Project Food Forest is helping the city of Luverne, as well as the rest of Rock County, take small steps towards treating racism as a public health issue.
“We’re always trying to make things more equitable, we’re always trying to recognize what are those gaps and we’re still learning. I think the biggest thing I can say about anybody,” Rockman said.
Dedeepya Guthikonda,a junior at Edina High School this fall, produced this story earlier this month during ThreeSixty Journalism’s 2020 Digital Media Arts Camp, in partnership with the Center for Prevention at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota and Padilla. Health equity was the theme, with a focus on racism as a public health issue.
As part of Digital Media Arts Camp, I covered a story on Project Food Forest, a nonprofit in Rock County, Minnesota.
Project Food Forest serves as a community garden that educates people on healthy eating, where anyone can give or take as much as they need from the garden.
Rock County, Minnesota, is a food desert, with only one accessible grocery store, which makes the work that Project Food Forest does even more urgent. Food insecurity disproportionately affects people of color, and especially in a majority-white community such as Rock County, Project Food Forest seeks to bring together people from all backgrounds and give them the resources they need.
This was my first time creating an interactive digital story, so figuring out the different ways that can look like and balancing my writing along with visuals was new and challenging. I also needed to find different statistics and information on Rock County for this project, and with my mentor’s help, I have two new resources under my belt that I know I will be using for years to come.
Project Food Forest is set in a rural area. I had never heard of Rock County before, and seeing the steps that smaller, majority-white communities are taking to improve equity within the scope of their region made me realize the urgency of the issue within the communities that often go unnoticed.
I was also able to learn more about how the pandemic especially has affected communities of color in the state, creating a more urgent need for food security. There has been a lot in the news lately, and working closely with a community with racial disparities and an organization that is working to improve health equality gave me a new perspective on racism as a public health issue. I was able to learn how health equity presents itself in different ways through my classmates’ projects.
There was my story about food security, but health equity is present in so many different aspects of our lives, from the food we eat to the sports teams we cheer on and the schools we attend. Digital Media Academy introduced me to racism as a public health issue and left me inspired by the work that is being done and more aware of all the work there still is left for us to do.