A Minneapolis City Council member has a simple recipe for reducing the economic disparity between Hmong families and others in Minnesota. Just add water — tap water.
Hmong families in Minnesota earn about $25,000 less annually than the statewide average. But many of them line up at grocery stores to fill jugs with filtered water.
City Council Member Blong Yang said many Hmong families will spend $25 or even $50 a month buying water, because they don't trust what comes out of the tap in their kitchens.
"It's this transference of their knowledge from, let's say, Thailand or Laos or some other country, maybe a Third World country," Yang said. "Back in the home country, we didn't trust it. We drank from the bottle. It's just habit now."
Yang said his parents would cook with tap water but never drink it. And for a long time, neither did he.
"To be honest with you, I only drank from the tap maybe about three or four years ago," he said. "I'm college educated. I should know these things. I mean, still it's ingrained with you. I mean it's cultural for you."
Now, Yang is using his position on the City Council to try to change that culture. On a recent morning, he organized a tour of the Minneapolis water treatment plant in Fridley for about 20 people, including a group of elderly Hmong women.
The visitors saw the pumps that draw 60 million gallons of water a day from the Mississippi River. And the giant pools where the water is treated to remove bad-tasting minerals. Superintendent Annika Bankston showed them the laboratory where scientists constantly track water quality using sophisticated equipment — like a gas chromatograph-mass spectrophotometer.
Some of the monitoring systems have simpler names: Call them clams, or technically freshwater mussels. They sit in a tank and sample the river water. Bankston explained that they serve as an experimental early warning system.
"And so if there's ever a rapid change, or if all of a sudden all the clams close their mouths, we know that something's gone very different with the river, and it alerts us to do some extra testing," Bankston said.
The elders were clearly impressed.
George Kraynick, water quality manager, said that after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, Minneapolis banned tour groups at the water plant. It's still a high-security facility. But in recent years, the city has reopened the plant for tours.
"We want people to see what we do, and have you know where your water comes from, and have confidence in that water coming out of your tap," Kraynick said. "That's the safest thing in your house. Safer than the food, safer than anything else. That tap water, every drop has been tested."
The tour ended with a different kind of test — a blind taste test. The water in one cup came from a bottle. The other, from the tap. People voted on which one tasted better.
On this day, 10 people selected store-bought Dasani water and 10 chose tap water. The taste test was a tossup. But the price difference is huge.
Five gallons of Minneapolis tap water will cost you 2 cents on your bill. Five gallons at the grocery store where the women buy their water costs $1.50.
One of the women yelled out to Council Member Yang, "Why did we not know earlier so we would not waste our money?"
Better late than never, in Yang's view.
"If I can crusade in some ways to get immigrant groups, especially Hmong folks but other folks as well, to not buy their water from the store and to use their tap water, we will save people countless amounts of money, and that's a good thing," he said.
But Yang acknowledged that changing a culture is hard. Only half-jokingly, he said it might mean taking every single person in the Minneapolis Hmong community on a tour of the water treatment plant.
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