Frogtown's half-mile long banquet to spur food talk

Seitu Jones
Seitu Jones at the Stone's Throw Urban Farm.
Lisa Oyolu / MPR News

Seitu Jones is well known for his public-minded creations, from imaginative bins that encourage people to recycle to landscaping that blends art and nature.

But these days, the St. Paul visual artist is focusing his imagination on food — and the kind of healthy choices that can help his neighbors in the Frogtown neighborhood. His latest vision is "Create: The Community Meal", a massive outdoor banquet planned for 2,000 people on a half-mile stretch of Victoria Avenue from 1 to 4 p.m. on Sept. 14, weather permitting.

Jones, whose work often centers on social issues, was inspired to organize the dinner after seeing how people in the neighborhood shop for food.

"[I] was watching this endless parade of people walk by my studio windows here that would be going in one direction and then coming back just a few minutes later with bags of groceries, knowing that they had just shopped at the local convenience store," he said. "There are other, more healthy, food choices."

Jones hopes the community meal sparks conversation about healthy eating in the neighborhood, where many people have limited incomes.

Children in the neighborhood already are learning about healthy food at Youth Farm, which teaches them gardening skills. At lunchtime, that can be handy, as Seitu learned on a recent visit.

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"What'd you have for lunch?" he asked the children.

They were happy to answer: "What we had for lunch today was some fried chicken. We had rice, some vegetables, and beans."

"Everything on the menu somehow has a relationship to someone's food story"

When Jones asked the children if they grew any of the food, they told him they had grown nearly all of it — except for the fried chicken and rice.

That's what Jones likes to hear. He hopes the banquet will help make many of his adult neighbors more aware of healthy eating options. Urban farms in Frogtown will supply some of the food.

To prepare for the big event, community members are holding small dinners, serving healthy foods, and discussing why they matter. Jones calls the talks "food stories," or the great accounts of people's lives, written in carbohydrates, proteins and vegetables.

At the dinner, spoken-word artists TouSaiko Lee, Deeq Abdi, Laurine Chang, Nimo Farah and Rodrigo Sanchez-Chavarria will help the children transform the stories into a performance. It will feature poetry by G.E. Patterson and choreography by Ananya Dance Theatre.

Create: The Community Meal will be held here
In September, Create: The Community Meal will be held here, along Victoria Street from Sherburne Avenue to Van Buren Avenue.
Lisa Oyolu / MPR News

Jones envisioned the event as an opportunity to combine art, food, and healthy living in a single community event. However, he quickly discovered that he needed a lot of help.

"There's no way I could do this by myself," he said. "We've hired a producer, somebody to coordinate the mobile art kitchens, we've hired a choreographer, even, that will be creating this whole set of movements from the serving stations to the tables for all of the servers. I didn't even think about the logistical nightmare that this is presenting."

One of Jones' major partners in the effort is Public Arts St. Paul, which is working with local farmers to supply the fresh produce for the menu.

Christine Podas-Larson, the organization's president, has the difficult job of handling logistics for the dinner.

Stone's Throw Urban Farm
Stone's Throw Urban Farm is one of many healthy eating initiatives in Frogtown providing food for the Create: The Community Meal.
Lisa Oyolu / MPR News

"That meant we had to have a menu, and that was no small feat, because everything on the menu somehow has a relationship to someone's food story," she said. "Whether it's apples or whether it's collard greens, or chicken — it's all arising from these food stories."

Many Frogtown residents are excited about the work going into the event. The dinner gives them a way to help reframe how people think of the area, said Sam Buffington, organizing director for the Frogtown Neighborhood Association.

"It's about seeing the neighborhood in a different kind of way," he said. "Not as a transit corridor, but as a neighborhood, and that there's people who live here — just reconnecting to this community, and having the folks come together and remind us that as a neighborhood, it's more than just a transit corridor."

Buffington hopes this community-building effort continues, even after dessert.

The dinner is designed to address the barriers to healthy eating in Frogtown. The gathering, Jones said, is an artistic way to start the conversation.

In the meantime, he's hitting the streets of Frogtown to make sure his neighbors have a seat at the table.

"Not enough folks know about it," Jones said. "So that's why I'm walking with this clipboard in my hand. It's my goal to make sure that at least half of the folks seated at that table are people from this neighborhood."

Reservations are required for the free event. Tickets are available through Public Arts St. Paul.

Read more stories from MPR News Young Reporters series.