The First Lady of Food

Megan O’Hara—also known as Mrs. R.T. Rybak—on guerrilla gardening, food deserts, and what it takes to be a foodie town

Megan O’Hara wants you to eat your vegetables. She wants you to grow them, too. Homegrown Minneapolis, the initiative she started within her husband’s city government, is helping change the rules to spur the development of community gardens, encourage healthier eating, and generally make city dwellers leaner and greener. We asked her about this effort over some not-so-local coffee at the Birchwood Café.

You and the mayor are trim and healthy, which is great. But why do you care what I eat?
I’m not going to push you, but for the people who want to eat healthy, we’ve got to make it easier. There are a lot of food deserts in the city, places where healthy food isn’t available or obvious. That’s why we started the Healthy Corner Store Program, working with 20 corner stores to display healthier food. In fact, we made an ordinance requiring more healthy food in corner stores.

Or I could grow my own, right?
We’re not Detroit, where urban agriculture is really taking off—our land values are better—but we’re examining every city parcel to see where it makes sense, and we’ve begun to make more land available: 20 more parcels for community gardens so far. There are a lot of gardens now on the North Side. I call them guerrilla gardens. If you create the space, people will come forward.

Minneapolis is becoming a city of locavores. How did this happen?
For the last 10 years, people have been seeking something else, something other than unhealthy, processed food, and the alternative is becoming more accessible. Also, people are more mobile now, they’re traveling to diverse places, and, as a result, their palates are more sophisticated. They want better food right here at home.

How local can we eat when the ground is frozen five months a year?
My take on eating local isn’t about eating all local, it’s about preferencing local food. Also, there is local squash, potatoes, meat, and dairy you can have all year. Do you know about Peterson Family turkeys? Hidden Stream pork?

How do you make it cheaper, though?
There’s a problem of inefficiency, no doubt. But if you bring people together who aren’t in the food game solely for profit but because it’s healthy for you and the land, we can bring down the cost. We’re creating food hubs around the city where people can get low-cost seeds and even borrow tools. We’re giving small loans to food entrepreneurs. Our farmers’ markets are business incubators, you know—that’s how Sun Street Breads started. It’s mom-and-pop. It’s local. It makes us a foodie town.

What’s one of the best community gardens you’ve found here?
Check out the Dowling Community Garden in the Longfellow neighborhood. It’s one of the last remaining victory gardens from World War II, and there are some serious gardeners working there now. There’s a long waiting list. But walk back and you’ll find an orchard of pear trees, right there in the city. It’s a well-kept secret.

Not many people think of Minnesota for its fruits and vegetables—except corn.
They used to. There was a lot more fruit production after World War II, and a lot more vegetables. But with government subsidies guaranteeing a price for commodities, much of that fruit and vegetable production has consolidated in central California—the salad bowl of the country. We’ve got ourselves into a monoculture situation, which isn’t good for us or the land.

If I showed up at the Rybak-O’Hara home, who’d be cooking?
R.T. doesn’t mind whipping up pasta or a meatloaf. But it’s mostly me.

Do you allow yourself any guilty pleasures?
More than I should. Chocolate sea-salt cookies from Lucia’s. Biscuits from Sun Street.

What are your first food memories?
I remember a lot of roast beef and carrots, all caramelized and golden-brown. My dad worked in sales for Hormel. I’d go along on his routes sometimes, calling on small-town butchers and grocers. Things were different then—now there are small towns without a grocery store.

So you’re no vegetarian.
Have you had the sausages from Clancey’s? No. I got into this from the environmental side—I’d learned how destructive agriculture could be to the land. Then I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, about choosing sustainable, healthy food. It’s nice to be for something and not just against.

Tim Gihring is a senior editor for Minnesota Monthly.