On May 25, 2020, former police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Now, the area where Floyd died has been forever changed. In George Floyd Square, the community has come together to commemorate him and other Black lives lost at the violent hands of police.
People from around the world have visited the site in mourning bearing gifts. Among them? Flowers and plants. Many of these go into a community-built greenhouse where they can live long-term. And the greenhouse is a rapidly evolving space hoping to educate the community on food justice and health.
Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re honoring Floyd and what’s grown in his wake. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. Police brutality is but one threat Black communities face. Many others contribute to a slow-moving violence against their bodies and well-being. The soil offers a chance to improve public health by growing food and medicine—a form of protest unto itself.
On the anniversary of George Floyd’s murder, community advocate Jay Webb spent all day at George Floyd Square in Minneapolis. A festival was underway. He alternated between gardener in the morning to security in the afternoon. He sang during open mic before rapper Common hit the main stage. Webb wears many hats in his city, but his great passion is gardening. That’s how the greenhouse got started.
The 15-by-20-foot greenhouse stands on 38th and Chicago. It’s full of colorful planters adorned with phrases like “Black Trans Lives Matter” and “I’m Black and I’m Beautiful.” As temperatures began to dip last fall, organizers worried whether the living offerings—what folks call the plants people donate to the square—would survive outside. They didn’t leave their future to chance: A team of volunteers built the greenhouse to keep the offerings safe.
The greenhouse has now become a space for community members to come together, mourn, and learn about resilience and food. Webb has ambitious goals for the greenhouse, too: He wants local youth to visit and learn how food and medicinal plants are grown. More urgently, he hopes fresh local food can help improve community health.
“When everyone you know dies, it hurts,” he said as he grew emotional. “I’ve lost loved ones to cancer. I constantly see people that are just going through this, and it hurts.”
When police killed Floyd last year, the city erupted into protest. The property damage was one of the costliest in U.S. history, but Webb saw opportunity in the rubble. He went around to various businesses and establishments that were throwing out destroyed plants and told them he could offer them a second life. He estimates that about 89% of the plants in the greenhouse today were restored from the riots.
“When people get there, I tell them, Hey you know what kind of plants these are? Rescues like me,” Webb said.
However, the greenhouse has truly been a community effort. Kaitlin Wolfgram-Gunderson, an activist at the square, helped design and build the greenhouse. After getting laid off in March, Wolfgram-Gunderson was looking for ways to stay productive while giving back to the movement. As it turned out, she had some experience building various types of greenhouses. So she got to work. After working two full days, the team of volunteers was finished.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen someone poke their head in there and realize that it’s a greenhouse, especially in the winter,” Wolfgram-Gunderson said. “The warmth and humidity coming out of there—and the fact that we still had flowering plants in February—it gave people hope, and it gave people life.”
Flowers, succulents, and organic vegetables, including onions and broccoli sprouts, are currently thriving within the greenhouse’s four walls. Soon, the building may serve as a school of sorts, welcoming children to learn about the power of food. The Twin Cities area is home to a number of food deserts, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines as a low-income census tract where 33% of the population lives more than a half mile from a major grocery provider. Jeanette Rupert, an intensive care unit nurse at Methodist Hospital, has been talking to Webb about the health education opportunities the greenhouse provides.
She thinks of her own family and the benefits they’d see from access to locally grown produce. “My husband, he told me, I hate vegetables. I never ate vegetables growing up,” Rupert said. “When he met me—and I garden—of course he got to experience vegetables. He was like, Oh, my god, these taste so good. All the vegetables I ever ate came from a can.”
“When I look at the disparities against BIPOC—systemic racism, police brutality—the healthcare system is no different.”
As someone who works in a hospital, Rupert has seen firsthand the health risks her community faces. Black adults are nearly twice as likely as white adults to experience type two diabetes. A number of factors contribute: socioeconomic status, healthcare, and access to quality food. Eating well is one of the easiest ways to prevent such ailments. The greenhouse can help communicate that to the next generation.
“When I look at the disparities against BIPOC—systemic racism, police brutality—the healthcare system is no different,” Rupert said. “And there are healthcare disparities and food insecurities that impact so many communities of color. And it calls attention to inequity—the murder of George Floyd.”
This much-needed attention has led to an outpouring of love and creativity. Webb first fell in love with gardens as a young man. He traveled the world back in his 20s and 30s—seeing firsthand the gardens of Switzerland, Israel, and Japan. He wanted to bring the elegant explosions of color home to Minneapolis. Now, they live on in Floyd’s memory.