The Wonderful Story of the Gandhi Mahal Interfaith Garden and the Community it is Growing

The Gandhi Mahal Interfaith Garden had its first community workday on Friday, May 12.

While this blog has spent time focusing on stopping some bad ideas, such as the Dakota Access Pipeline, we also need to hold up efforts to create a better world. These visionary efforts are often labor intensive, relatively small, and don’t draw a lot of media attention. Yet these community-based initiatives are extremely important. If we don’t have people creating an alternative vision for a better way of living, we will never get there, no matter how hard we protest.

To that end, we spotlight the Gandhi Mahal Interfaith Garden. It is a partnership between Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light, the Gandhi Mahal Restaurant, and First Nations Kitchen, a meals program and ministry of All Saints’ Episcopal Indian Mission in Minneapolis.

The interfaith garden is in the backyard of a duplex owned by Julia Frost Nerbonne, the executive director of Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light, and her husband. Gardening season opened Friday, May 12, with a day-long community event to prepare the beds. Prayers were offered by Rev. Cannon Robert Two Bulls, missioner of the Department of Indian Work for the Episcopal Church in Minnesota. Gandhi Mahal provided food for the volunteers. Young and old contributed labor.

The Interfaith Garden not only provides food for b0th Gandhi Mahal and First Nations Kitchen, it is creating a new community.

How it came to be is a beautiful story.

The garlic already is coming up.

Before working for Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light, Nerbonne taught for HECUA — the Higher Education Consortium for Urban Affairs. HECUA has a study abroad program, and in 2012 Julia traveled with HECUA students to Bangladesh.

Ruhel Islam, owner and executive chef of the Gandhi Mahal Restaurant, is from Bangladesh, and was there at the same time as the HECUA study group. He offered to host them at his village. That was the start of a friendship between Julia and Ruhel.

Julia recalled how self sufficient Ruhel’s family was, with a fish pond, chickens and gardens. “It is an incredible story of food security,” she said.

Ruhel said it is simply the way he grew up. “Where I am from, …the culture is agriculture, food culture,” he said.

Bangladesh is ground zero for climate change, he said. The village can’t depend on transportation for food because of flooding or other challenges. “We have food everywhere.”

Rahel brought these ideas back to his restaurant. He has a bee hive on the roof of Gandhi Mahal, an aquaponics fish tank in the basement, and he just got fruit trees planted nearby.

After returning to Minnesota, Julia and Ruhel kept talking about sustainable agriculture. Julia and her husband started looking for property where they could start a garden project. They found a foreclosed duplex just south of the Midtown YWCA. (They bought it for its extra long lot.) In the wake of the financial collapse of 2008, it was difficult to get a loan, Julia said. But they refinanced their house and bought it.

With help from HECUA, the garden launched that summer. The initial idea was to create a local market, not give food away but sell it, Julia said. Then she left HECUA to lead Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light. The garden grew in a new direction. Its goal now is to explore “the intersections between food justice, faith, and climate change by growing healthy food for our partners and creating a radically welcoming space for community to thrive,” the website says.

Rahel brings a powerful perspective on the issue of food justice. He said back home, they call food “food.” “We don’t call it ‘organic’ or ‘non-GMO,’” he said. “I strongly believe by calling it organic or non-GMO we are dividing our people through the food … Organic means rich people can have it. .. We don’t know we are in the caste system with the food … but this is the truth.

First Nations Kitchen Joins the Garden

White sage (with dandelions)

Not surprisingly, the relationship Ruhel, Robert and First Nations Kitchen started over food. Robert said he started going to Gandhi Mahal because a Presbyterian minister friend liked the restaurant.

As Ruhel recalls, Robert got to be friends with one of his kitchen managers. One day Robert asked if the restaurant would cook the buffalo for First Nations Kitchen’s annual fundraiser. “No problem,” Ruhel said. We’ll spice it up.”

The relationship grew. Rahel was interested in learning more about Native culture. “I feel very connected to the food culture they have and the hospitality,” he said. “They talk about food as a medicine. I strongly believe that food is a medicine. Food can cure a lot of disease.”

Starting in 2016, the garden evolved into a three-way partnership between the restaurant, First Nations Kitchen and Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light. Now, First Nations Kitchen gets about half of the harvest. Robert said they come to the garden on Sunday mornings to get fresh produce for that evening’s meal. They typically plan for about 125 servings. Any leftover produce they give away to guests.

Building Community

Claire Baglien coordinates the Gandhi Mahal Interfaith Garden and organized the May 12 community event to launch this year’s garden.

Someone brought in a pair of “running ducks” for the garden. Today, the ducks are dining on Gandhi Mahal’s food scraps, from spinach to basmati rice.  “We know how to compost. Duck will help us. They are part of the team,” Ruhel said. “They will compost it overnight and give it back to nature. This is our regenerative agriculture. This is how we did it back home.”

Volunteer groups, including those from different religious communities,  come to the garden on Thursdays to help with projects. Sunday evenings are “Open Garden Nights” where neighbors and people from First Nations Kitchen come for readings and relationships.

Interested in learning more? Contact Claire Baglien, Garden Coordinator, at clairebaglien@mnipl.org or 763-772-6439.

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