It Takes A Village
Somali Seeds Take Root in Local Food Movement
Perhaps you’ve eaten a veggie mole at Taco Punk made with fresh kale and carrots from her garden.
Or maybe you’ve seen her in a colorful headscarf stationed behind a table overflowing with cucumbers, tomatillos, bell peppers and eggplants at a farmers’ market around town.
Amina Osman might not know much English, but the fruits of her labor speak volumes.
Amina, is a Somali Bantu who has been growing and selling produce at Louisville farmers’ markets for the past four years. Bantus are an ethnic minority in Somalia, brought there from Southeast Africa as part of the slave trade. Where native Somalis are known as nomadic traders, Bantu are the farmers.
When Amina, her husband, Bakar, and seven children fled the Somali civil war and came to the United States, they never dreamed they’d have the opportunity to work in the fields again. “Now I’m in the midst of farming,” says Amina, who happily spends almost every day maintaining one or both of her gardens, one plot designated for commercial sales and the other for family consumption.
The gardens are made available to her through the Refugee Agricultural Partnership Program. RAPP hosts five garden sites in Louisville that allow refugee settlers from a variety of countries to grow food for their families and/or for sale.
Through her participation in RAPP, Amina has been able to reduce household food costs and earn supplemental income. She sells to many local restaurants, especially in the East Market District, and at several farmers’ markets. One of the markets, at St. Francis of Assisi Church in the Highlands, was established specifically for the refugee gardeners in the RAPP program.
Of the eight active sellers in the RAPP program, Amina is its highest earner. In fact, she increased her sales by an impressive $3,400 between 2011 and 2012. Lauren Goldberg, RAPP’s Project Coordinator, believes this dramatic increase is the result of two factors: more sales and marketing opportunities, and Amina’s business savvy.
“She has been real innovative on her own,” says Goldberg, who explains that Amina pays attention to what others are selling and what her customers are buying, then adjusts her plantings the following year. Amina, for example, grows a lot of kale, the current “queen of greens,” which is packed full of nutrients and has a long growing season.
She also earns money by selling sambusa, the classic Somali snack influenced by the Indian samosa. Amina’s sambusa fillings differ with the seasonal produce provided by her garden, but always — like Indian samosas — contain potatoes, an ingredient generally not used in Somalia. She sells her freshly made sambusas at the St. Francis of Assisi Church’s Farmers’ Market in the Highlands on Sunday mornings, July through October, 9:30am–12:30pm.
Amina’s hard work and attention to detail have paid off, not only in sales but also in the quality of her produce. Mayan Café chef Bruce Ucán says he’s noticed that Amina’s produce has improved since he began purchasing from her several years ago. He especially likes her onions, which he says are sweeter than most. Ucán believes this improvement could be attributed to the natural learning curve of farming, figuring out what works and what doesn’t.
“It’s definitely an adjustment since they are coming from a different soil and climate,” says RAPP’s technical advisor Robbie Adelberg, as he walks barefoot one hot afternoon through the program’s largest community garden behind New Heights Baptist Church. Here in Louisville’s South End, where many refugees have settled, 40 families garden in 30- by 30-foot plots. RAPP tries to make its clients’ adjustment to cultivating on “foreign” soil as easy as possible by providing over a dozen training and educational classes each year. But often Goldberg and Adelberg are the ones who are learning. Some of the refugees cultivate plants that most Americans don’t use as food.
One such plant is amaranth, popular among Africans, Southeast Asians and Mexicans. Sometimes considered a weed in the U.S., it is a source of both protein and phytochemicals, not to mention medicinal uses, treating afflictions from skin abrasions to hypertension.
Amina grows amaranth in her family garden and uses the greens — comparable to spinach — in dishes like soups (substitute it for spinach in virtually any recipe). So far, she hasn’t sold it commercially. But as more people awaken to the health benefits of amaranth and refugees continue to arrive in Louisville through resettlement agencies like Catholic Charities and Kentucky Refugee Ministries, a demand for this and other plants traditionally grown in refugees’ homelands could increase.
Amina seems at home in her gardens, often joking with her husband, who works alongside her. They value the land, having a place to work and call their own. Somalia doesn’t seem so far away when they are engaged in a familiar activity and can transform their produce into dishes they are culturally accustomed to, like Amina’s specialty: sambusas.
Working in her gardens also helps Amina stay active and eat nutritiously, which is critical since she has diabetes. On the days she sells to the public, she can practice her English. Communicating basic pricing information hasn’t posed a challenge yet, but Amina says, “I would love to learn more English.” Finding the time, however, is the true challenge.
While Amina has experienced many benefits from growing and selling her produce, the benefits to the community are just as manifold. Amina’s customers are getting a high-quality product grown in Jefferson County without any chemicals and with a harvest time usually within 12 hours of sale.
Taco Punk’s owner Gabe Sowder says he likes having healthy, local food brought to his door. Chef Tyler Morris of Rye has noticed some differences in the varieties of Amina’s produce from what is generally grown in the region, such as a unique African pumpkin variety he incorporates in seasonal salads on his daily-changing menu. Morris, Sowder and Ucán like supporting refugees like Amina who in turn help their restaurants provide healthier, more diversified eating options to the community. “We have to give people the chance to eat better,” says Ucán. “Little by little, things will start changing.”
Amina is now part of that change, a vital link in the farm-to-table chain. “I love working,” she says with a smile that seems to traverse continents. “What else would I do?”
THE RAP ON RAPP
Refugee Agricultural Partnership Program (RAPP) is a federally funded grant program administered by the Kentucky Office for Refugees, a division of Catholic Charities. RAPP works to empower refugee families and communities through urban agriculture in Louisville.
In RAPP’s sixth year, 150 participants from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Somalia, Bhutan and Burma (Myanmar) grow at five urban agriculture sites in the Louisville area.
RAPP helps clients access land, education and training, along with sales opportunities. RAPP offers training in subjects from disease control to soil fertility, helping growers adapt to conditions in the Ohio Valley.
Currently, RAPP farmers attend five local farmers’ markets and sell to eight restaurants, many in the East Market District, and other wholesale and retail outlets. You can find RAPP farmers at:
- St. Francis of Assisi Church
1960 Bardstown Rd.
Sundays 10am–12:30pm through October 27
- St. James Church
1826 Edenside Ave
Sundays 9:30am–12:30pm through October 27
- Americana Community Center
4801 Southside Dr.
Thursdays 5:30–8:30pm through October 24
- Whole Foods Farmers’ Market
4944 Shelbyville Rd.
Wednesdays 3–7pm, through September 25
- St. Matthews Farmers’ Market
Beargrass Christian Church
4100 Shelbyville Rd.
Saturdays 8am–noon, through October 12
- The Flea Off Market
Fresh Start Growers’ Supply, 1007 E. Jefferson St.
first weekend of each month
There is an urgent need for more land and garden plots, with 89 families are on the 2014 waiting list. If you, your business or your faith community has access to land and a desire to partner with RAPP to manage a community garden site, contact Lauren Goldberg, project coordinator, at 502-873-2560 x256 or firstname.lastname@example.org.