Like nearly every other region of the U.S., the Minneapolis-St. Paul area was grappling with food insecurity in the spring due to the coronavirus pandemic. When George Floyd was murdered and protestors took to the streets, supermarkets and convenience stores in the affected area shuttered in the wake of the unrest. Food deserts appeared in short order. While donations have helped some businesses begin to pick up the pieces, many are waiting on uncertain government relief tied up in the state’s Republican majority senate and others have lost their businesses altogether.
A number of Minnesota organizations stepped up to address the new level of hunger in the Twin Cities. But the Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA) stands out for the steady stream of fresh food they’ve donated by nearly doubling its community supported agriculture (CSA) program this year, helping growers to sell online and deliver their produce, and their conviction to continue to help through the end of the year at least.
“The murder of George Floyd has really lifted up the challenges of BIPOCs and the systemic racism that exists,” says Janssen Hang, HAFA’s executive director. The group of immigrant farmers from Southeast Asia grounds their work in social justice and equity, and it’s not hard to see why they have been quick to want to help communities battered by racism and violence heal.
From buying produce and organizing donation boxes to providing food as their existing partners’ new relief locations, HAFA has been doing what it can to both advance social justice and support its farmers along the way—not only in the short term but as a model for others.
“We’ve had a lot of challenges,” says Princess Haley, co-founder of Appetite for Change, a nonprofit working to bring healthy food to the majority Black North Minneapolis neighborhood. The organization, which has delivered 5,000 meals a week since April, has been using produce provided by HAFA as well as a number of individual Hmong farmers.
Beyond produce contributions, Haley has also looked to HAFA as a model for Appetite for Change’s work, deciding to operate similarly to HAFA by focusing on a marginalized community but not at the exclusion of others. Like HAFA, “we don’t want to leave anyone out,” she says. She adds that she was inspired by the Hmong women farmers Haley met when she first moved to the Twin Cities from Chicago 16 years ago.
“Those women didn’t speak much English, but I remember the first day squatting in the garden,” Haley recalls. A Hmong farmer came over to Haley, gave her a knife, and showed her how to weed effectively while taking her sandals off to show her how growing should be done—in connection with the earth. “They just welcomed me in,” she says.
A History of Reinvention
A minority group that resided largely in the mountains of Laos and Thailand, the Hmong people were secretly recruited by the CIA to assist the U.S. in the Vietnam War. This alliance eventually led many to resettle in the U.S. as political refugees after the U.S withdrew from the war in 1975. Today, the Twin Cities area has the highest concentration of Hmong people of any metropolitan area in the country.
When the Hmong began immigrating in the ‘80s, “because of language barriers and a lack of skills in a post-industrial society, many reverted back to farming because that was part of the skills they knew. They have been farming for generations,” explains Hang.
However, Minnesota’s newest farmers lacked the access to the resources and systems—from land to capital—to fully flourish in their new home. White landowners often took advantage of the Hmong people’s lack of understanding of modern farm and economic systems. “Many landowners who leased land wanted to charge them an astronomical amount,” Hang explains. “Some were charging Hmong farmers $350-$400 an acre while charging their Caucasian counterparts no more than $150.”
Despite these barriers, the Hmong people continued to find ways to farm, introducing Minnesotans to products like bitter melon and Thai chili peppers while revitalizing the Twin Cities farmers’ markets in the process. Many Hmong farmers naturally use organic practices but find hurdles on the way to certification. Rather than bar them, many markets like the Mill City farmers’ market opt to do their own growing checks in place of formal certificates. Then, in 2011, when Hang’s sister Pakou became a Bush Fellow, things began to change.
Pakou used the opportunity to conduct feasibility studies and research on the challenges and opportunities facing Hmong farmers after more than 20 years in the Twin Cities. “She found that there’s still a great disparity in what Hmong farmers were making compared to their white counterparts, primarily due to a lack of access to land, markets, credit, capital, and training,” Hang says.
That same year the Hangs and a group of Hmong families started HAFA as an act of self-determination and a means for organizing to change the lingering inequities in the local food economy.
“Our theory of change [is] about building community wealth through our whole food model,” Hang says. “[The] model states that all aspects of the food and farming industry must be freely accessible simultaneously with regards to land access, markets, training, research, and financial assistance to truly . . . change these aspects of food and farming.”
In 2013, HAFA acquired a 155-acre farm in Vermillion, Minnesota, just outside the metro area. In addition to providing its farmers with land, the farm is also used to teach them about farming best practices, from soil health and cover cropping to water quality and food safety. When HAFA started in 2011, its member farmers were earning $5,000 in sales per acre. By 2017, and thanks to the HAFA farm, that number jumped to an average of $11,000 per acre—a 120 percent increase. Today, HAFA’s farmers sell produce through the organization’s CSA or in Twin Cities farmers’ markets where Hmong American farmers make up over half of the farmers.
Responding to the Current Moment
For much of 2020, the HAFA farm has played a slightly different role than it has in the past, working to enable Hmong farmers to more easily and effectively respond to the social justice needs of the moment in the best way that they can: through food.
When restaurants closed this spring and the outlook for summer farmers’ market turnout was uncertain at best, HAFA not only added internal infrastructure to keep its farmers safe and provide PPE, but it also helped them pivot to online CSA sales.
“Most Hmong farmers are older and have language and computer-literacy barriers,” Hang says. HAFA worked with a designer to create a user-friendly online sales platform that farmers could get up and running for their individual businesses in just a few hours.
“HAFA gave trainings . . . [and] was really pushing farmers to do online markets,” says Lillian Hang (no relation), a HAFA board member whose parents, Phoua Thao and Wang Ger Hang, have been HAFA farmers since the beginning.
This helped farmers continue selling during a challenging time while also meeting the food needs of the community. “We got a lot of customers who were immunocompromised. They really wanted access to fresh, local produce but couldn’t risk going to the grocery store,” Lillian says. She and her family have taken to doing deliveries to literally and figuratively meet customers where they are during the pandemic.
This year, HAFA has doubled its usual number of CSA shares for a total of 800. Janssen expects to reach 1,000 before the year is out.
In the days that followed the killing of George Floyd, much of the looting centered on Lake Street in Minneapolis and University Avenue in St. Paul, an area of the city where many immigrant and minority groups, from the Black community to the Latinx and Asian communities, live and own businesses.
“The Hmong community is very close-knit,” Janssen says, adding that almost everyone in the Hmong community has a friend, relative, family member, or at least someone they know with a business on University Avenue.
“[Floyd’s death] really hit us personally. [University Avenue] is our backyard . . . we eat, drink, and shop there,” Lillian says. “Like a lot of POCs, we get it. The whole police brutality thing is nothing new in the Hmong community.” In 2006, Minneapolis police killed 19-year-old Fong Lee, a Hmong American.
Like many Asian Americans, the Hmong residents of the Twin Cities also endured racist vitriol in the early days of the pandemic, and many were eager to support the social justice reforms that the BLM movement called for. HAFA took several steps to ensure that its farmers had the ability to support the communities of color disproportionately impacted by the food deserts created by the boarding up and burning of businesses.
Since May, HAFA has organized donation boxes that its farmers can contribute to in addition to using grants and other funding to buy produce from its farmers to supply restaurants and community organizations that have been donating food and meals to communities in need. The organization also participated in the Healing Community Food Drive in June, and from there connected with a variety of food security-focused organizations like University Avenue-based Nexis Community Partners that they’re still working with today.
“We donate quite a bit to the food shelf,” Lillian says of her family. “On Sundays, there’s always groups that come to collect donations,” such as Second Harvest, a St. Paul-based hunger relief organization. “My parents said they don’t have the money to donate, but they have produce and veggies to share. It’s like, ‘What can we do?’”
Months later, these food relief efforts are far from over. Janssen expects HAFA’s to continue making donations through at least the end of the year. He wants to ensure that there’s a steady flow of produce for HAFA’s partners and a secure income stream for its farmers, so HAFA has begun building a storage facility at the farm so farmers can cure their fall root crops in order to extend their shelf life.
“The need for food is still a reality. Even though the murder of George Floyd was a couple of months ago, communities are still impacted as a result,” he says.
Top photo credit: Mike Hazard / HAFA.