More herbs, less kale at MLK Park Donation Garden

There was a time last year when Jessie Weiss was eating a lot of kale: kale soups, kale salads, kale grain bowls. The kale inundation wasn’t a bad thing, per se. But to Weiss, it was certainly memorable.

Weiss’ kale was grown, in part, at the MLK Park Donation Garden. The garden is a partnership between the Aliveness Project, the Kingfield Neighborhood Association, the Park Board and Hennepin County Master Gardeners. The goal of the project is twofold: to provide a space for neighbors to gain gardening skills and to grow produce for the Aliveness Project meal program, which supplies high quality, nutritious meals to people living with HIV.

Since 2005 Weiss has been a member of the Aliveness Project. While the organization is based in Kingfield, it supports more than 2,000 members across Minnesota through wellness services ranging from medical case management to integrative therapy to nutritional advising. But sharing food is a cornerstone of its work.

As Executive Director Matt Toburen explained, the Aliveness Project started as a potluck community in the 1980s during the height of the AIDS crisis and HIV stigmatization. It began as an informal gathering where HIV-positive folks would come together over meals to build community and mutual support. Now, more than 30 years later, the Aliveness Project is home to an industrial kitchen, a cafeteria-style dining space, and a grocery store-like food pantry, all an extension of the project’s original food-based model of building healthy and fulfilling lives for those with HIV.

The Aliveness Project provides lunch and dinner throughout the week, serving an estimated 150 people daily in its building at 38th & Nicollet. Weiss attends the communal lunches every day. “It’s restaurant-quality food,” he said. “We are very blessed to have this in the neighborhood.”

To call these meals “restaurant-quality” is no exaggeration. Food Services Manager Kris Krekelberg is a former chef at The Local, a well-trafficked eatery in Downtown Minneapolis. Now at the Aliveness Project, Krekelberg designs meals and runs a kitchen staffed with cooks and volunteers.

Meal preparation is drastically different from Krekelberg’s experience in a more traditional kitchen because he is never quite sure what ingredients he has to work with. With a majority of the food coming through donations, Krekelberg and other kitchen staff plan meals on a day-by-day basis.

However, when it comes to ingredients from the Donation Garden, it’s not all a mystery. The Aliveness Project and Donation Garden volunteers have been working to establish better communication about what foods are needed and what can be expected.

Before the planting season started, the garden reached out to Laura Hutchinson, the nutrition and wellness program director of the Aliveness Project, to ask what kinds of foods they were looking to use.

Hutchinson responded, “Basically anything that’s not leafy greens, because we get so many.” As she explained, leafy greens are a popular donation because they are easy to grow and brown easily, so restaurants and grocery stores can’t keep them for long. Hence, all those kale-based meals.

And so the Donation Garden planned out their planting strategy accordingly. At the request of Krekelberg they started growing more herbs, ingredients that are donated less-frequently and tend to be more expensive to purchase. In the future, Hutchinson added, she would love to incorporate more member feedback about the produce they would like to see available.

Donation Garden volunteers also adapted their food delivery methods. Rather than dropping off massive bags of produce straight from the soil, volunteers started bringing the food prewashed and separated, saving time and energy during morning meal preparation for Krekelberg and other kitchen staff.

In addition to herbs, this year the Donation Garden has been growing a variety of produce from zucchini and cucumbers to tomatoes and string beans. They still grow kale, but less than they used to.

Mollie Dean is the Hennepin County Master Gardener who supports the Donation Garden. For over 12 years now, Dean has been teaching gardening skills to interested residents around Southwest Minneapolis. She has been with the MLK Park Donation Garden since it got off the ground in 2016.

As the Southwest Journal reported during the Donation Garden’s inaugural season, the garden was initially envisioned as a place to engage Aliveness Project members in the gardening and harvesting process. But as Toburen explained, “We just couldn’t get a consistent enough showing.” Dean concurred. “We let that piece go,” she said.

Still, Dean said, neighborhood volunteers have remained committed to a relationship between the garden and the Aliveness Project. They’ve just had to adjust the conditions.

Rather than asking Aliveness Project members and staff to participate in day-to-day Donation Garden care, the garden has built a core of dedicated neighborhood volunteers. “Every year I wonder, ‘Oh gosh is it going to work this year?’” Dean said. “But you trust the seeds, you trust the plants.” It also helps that the gardeners themselves have grown their skills significantly, diversifying their produce knowledge and deepening their understanding of the soil.

Together, the Donation Garden and the Aliveness Project are brainstorming ways to increase integration of their programs. Hutchinson said this could mean bringing in more garden volunteers to serve and share meals with Aliveness Project members. And it could also involve hosting cooking classes at the project incorporating garden-harvested foods.

Hutchinson and Toburen are committed to building awareness of the Donation Garden among their membership base, but members like Weiss already appreciate its presence. “I like that it’s in the neighborhood, I like that it’s close,” he said.

If you want to volunteer with the Aliveness Project, contact Volunteer Services through their website at aliveness.org. The Donation Garden hosts gardening nights every Tuesday evening at 5:30pm throughout the summer. You can find more information on the MLK Park Donation Garden Facebook page or at kingfield.org.

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