By Emily Pence, Communications Specialist, Hmong American Farmers Association
Photo credit: Mike Hazard
Local farmers are a critical component of successful local food systems. In Minnesota, Hmong American farmers occupy an especially unique place in the efforts to feed local communities local food. In the 1970s, Hmong refugees began resettling in Minnesota from Laos and Thailand as political refugees after the Vietnam War. Many of the resettled families relied on their agricultural heritage to make a living in their new communities, growing produce and flowers for local farmers markets.
By the late 1980s, Hmong farmers had revitalized the Saint Paul and Minneapolis farmers markets and transformed Minnesotan taste buds for Thai chili peppers and Chinese bok choy. They provided a steady stream of fresh produce that fueled the exponential growth of farmers markets into the state’s suburban communities and urban corridors, and greatly increased the supply of nutritious, affordable food available to families. Today, Hmong American farmers are leading the Twin Cities local food economy, making up more than 50 percent of all farmers that sell at metropolitan farmers markets.
In 2011, a group of Hmong American farming families formed the Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA). We believe that the best people to support Hmong farmers are Hmong farmers themselves, and that we are all lifted up when those who are affected by an unfair food system lead the change we seek. We formed with a mission to advance the prosperity of Hmong American farmers through cooperative endeavors, capacity building and advocacy. As part of an integrated approach to community wealth building, HAFA manages a 155-acre farm in Dakota County where member families can lease land, hone their business and agricultural practices, and sell produce to the HAFA Food Hub. The HAFA Food Hub aggregates and sells members’ produce through community-supported agriculture (CSA) shares, schools, retailers and institutions.
With growing recognition amongst stakeholders of the importance of connecting young children to healthy, local food, early care and education settings emerged as an important and beneficial market opportunity. Since 2014, HAFA has sold broccoli, beets, carrots and more to the Ramsey County Head Start program to serve to its children during mealtimes. In addition to providing fresh, local produce, HAFA has partnered with the Head Start program to provide educational opportunities and activities to engage its young students, teachers, food workers and parents around eating healthy food.
This partnership started when the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) approached Ramsey County Head Start about starting a Farm to Child Care Project. IATP wanted to focus on cultural relevance in early care and education food programs, which is important because Ramsey County Head Start is incredibly diverse, with over 25 different cultures and 34 different languages represented. Their desire to provide culturally appropriate food prompted IATP and Head Start to reach out to HAFA. They also partnered with Russ Davis Processing and CKC Good Food to help bring healthy, local food to their young eaters.
Here is how produce gets from the farm to the students: HAFA farmers grow fresh produce, which is harvested, washed, sorted and packaged on the farm. We then deliver the produce to Russ Davis Processing, which will peel, cut and process the produce. After the processing, the produce is sent to CKC Good Food, a woman-run, locally owned catering company. CKC creates a menu around the fresh produce, manages the kitchen and delivers the prepared meals to the Head State locations. The final result is young children enjoying fresh, healthy and locally grown food in their meals and snacks!
Not only does the partnership with HAFA allow students to become closer to their food, it also allows them to experience Hmong culture. More than 250 preschoolers visit the HAFA Farm annually, where they see first hand how food is grown. When students visit in the fall, they also participate in a traditional celebration of Hmong New Year. They try on traditional clothes, play New Year games and learn about why the holiday is an important part of the harvest season.
Importantly, HAFA’s partnership with Head Start greatly benefits the HAFA farmers themselves. Whereas selling produce at farmers market can sometimes be unpredictable, wholesale partnerships, such as HAFA’s partnership with Head Start, provides farmers with increased stability and profits for their families. The amount of produce HAFA farmers are able to sell to Ramsey County Head Start is the equivalent to an entire summer’s worth of selling at farmers markets!
In the past two years, we have seen amazing results from this partnership, which have been revolutionizing the food system. Hmong students feel more represented and included at school; students, staff and parents feel more connected to their community; and kids report loving lunch! Pakou Hang, HAFA’s Co-Founder and Executive Director, says, “Through this partnership, we see that we are moving our communities forward, through celebrating and incorporating cultural learning, promoting and supporting diverse role models and inviting students, parents and teachers to be allies in the celebration.”