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AICHO garden aims to connect people with traditional food

Jessie Fairbanks (left), 6, and Raelya Bender, 5, both of Duluth, pick tomatoes Thursday afternoon in the Gimaajii Garden at the American Indian Community Housing Organization in Duluth. The garden helps teach families living at AICHO about gardening, while also providing them with more fresh produce. (Clint Austin / / 6
A freshly picked carrot rests with tomatoes in the Gimaajii Garden at AICHO. One of the goals of the garden is connecting people with traditional food. (Clint Austin / 2 / 6
Raelya Bender, 5, of Duluth, examines a carrot she picked from the Gimaajii Garden Thursday afternoon at the American Indian Community Housing Organization in Duluth. (Clint Austin / / 6
Kylisha Green, 5, of Duluth, holds treasures including carrots and sugar snap peas from the Gimaajii Garden. There are plans to expand the garden to the roof once work up there is complete. (Clint Austin / / 6
Jessie Fairbanks, 6, of Duluth searches for ripe tomatoes in the Gimaajii Garden at the American Indian Community Housing Organization in Duluth Thursday afternoon. (Clint Austin / / 6
A handful of freshly picked tomatoes from the Gimaajii Garden. This week, kids were picking different types of tomatoes grown in the garden and taste-testing them. (Clint Austin / / 6

Standing above a black storage container, Katie Hanson slowly lifts its yellow lid with several holes dotting the top and changes into a narrator-like voice. She hangs on to each word: "This is the worm bin." A group of six children — all residents of the American Indian Community Housing Organization — peer over the bin with excitement.

The kids toss pieces of tomatoes, left half-eaten by neighborhood squirrels, into the bin and cover them with soil. Hanson, the children's program coordinator, explains how the worms will eat the food scraps and help produce compost, which they can then use to help the other plants grow in the garden behind the AICHO building at 202 W. Second St. In the midst of Hanson's lesson, one child looks up from the worms, "Wait, is this worm poop?"

"Well what goes in, must come out, right?" Hanson says.

On Wednesday, kids were picking different types of tomatoes grown in the garden and taste-testing them.

"The gardening is something that we're building on and finding that it has multiple benefits," Hanson said.

The space serves several functions: it helps teach children and their families about gardening while also providing them with more fresh produce, which can be more costly and less accessible than unhealthy convenience food, according to Hanson.

While Hanson is a newer employee, hired in January, she has been with the garden from the start. She helped create the original rooftop garden in 2014, while working for the Duluth Community Garden Program. This spring, she helped transplant plants to the space carved out beside the parking lot. Having seen the success of the garden for the past three years, she plans to expand it to include the roof once work up there is complete.

The organization plans to install solar panels on the roof, gather rainwater and increase their composting. They also host community workshops and lectures about the intersection of American Indian culture and the environment, which are open to the public. Last week, AICHO hosted an event where a member from Fond du Lac's Thirteen Moons program demonstrated how to dry and process traditional tobacco. The tobacco used was started from seed by Hanson and the children.

AICHO is completing much of this as a recipient of the Climate and Cultural Resilience Grants. One of the project's goals, according to Hanson, is "connecting people to traditional food."

So the garden plants are planned with American Indian culture in mind.

In one corner, corn, squash and beans — known as the Three Sisters — are planted together, so the beans can climb the corn as each grow while the squash grows along the ground to keep the soil moist and weeds down. There is also a section for medicinal plants, such as traditional tobacco, sage and sweetgrass.

The garden's traditional plants, coupled with AICHO's educational seminars and art displays, allows for a reclaiming of American Indian culture, said Ivy Vainio, climate and cultural resilience coordinator. Vainio added that many traditions have been eliminated through boarding schools and other methods.

"For American Indians to kind of take that back and own it and practice, it is cultural resiliency," she said.

AICHO hosts 29 low-income housing units for anyone in need, but the organization aims their programming around American Indian culture. In the mornings, for example, sage from the garden is burned in the building — a practice known as smudging.

"Just being surrounded with that cleanses you. It cleanses your mind. It cleanses your heart. It cleanses your body from negativity and things like that," Vainio said of smudging. Now in her fourth week at AICHO, it's one of her favorite parts of the job.

Hanson said that the garden allows residents of AICHO to take pride in where they live.

"People come and say 'Oh, I want to see your garden, oh, that's such an awesome garden that you get to hang out and help grow stuff in' — and that also builds on that sense of pride in their home.

"Then if we can connect it culturally, that's another element that can also help them feel more pride in their culture and reconnection to their culture, which is another healing aspect," Hanson said.