Divine Natural Ancestry’s urban farms are aimed at transformative food justice

Photos by Sarah White

When I met with Divine Natural Ancestry (DNA), a local project focused on food justice, the first conversation was an acknowledgment that we are on stolen Dakota land. Believing in the importance of food accessibility, Marcellina Reis, Sophia Benrud, and Sarah White are committed to regenerative farming by giving back the power of land to Native people. With four community farms—two in South Minneapolis, one in Northside, and another in Wisconsin—DNA grows, harvests, and distributes free, organic food to communities and families in the Twin Cities who might otherwise not be able to access it. Through neighborhood collaboration, DNA wants to put the power of sustainable urban organic farming into the hands of BIPOC people and put the conversation of healing through food back on the table. 

Sophia: This project began with the murder of Philando Castile. It was at the governor’s mansion where I met Marcellina, and Sarah was doing healing work. It’s been through movement and activism spaces, we’ve all been intertwined. Healing hasn’t been directly connected in a lot of the spaces that we’ve moved through but we all felt it should be. 

Inspired by each other’s radical community activism and environmental justice work, they wanted to unite in a movement where transformative healing could start with the soil. Fueled by an idea to grow food and give to people for free, Marcellina, Sarah, and Sophia attended the MOSES Organic Farming Conference in La Crosse, Wisconsin, the largest event in the U.S. that engages organic farmers and connects them to resources. During MOSES, they were empowered by a keynote from Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm—a BIPOC-centered community farm committed to a reverence for the land and using ancestral wisdom to reclaim agency in the food system.

Photo by Sarah White

Sarah: There weren’t a lot of people of color, period, but we definitely stuck out. We sat in the second row when Leah was speaking and by the end of it, we were all in tears. We got really activated to start doing something bigger. This project is all about healing and regaining access by demand to what should be ours and what should be given back to First Nation people. 

Marcellina: For me, it’s not just about healing myself as an individual. This work has to do with the sense of community that we’ve lost and are searching for. It’s been stolen; it’s been genocided.

Sarah: The information has been so distorted that we—especially as Black people— dissociate and don’t even know that we need to be in the land, when the agricultural practices came from Africa. At least for myself, I didn’t want to go out to the woods and work as a farmer because that felt like my family’s slave life, but now it feels like a beautiful remembering. That part needs to be dismantled too; there needs to be access to all angles of healing.  

Sophia: We definitely come from all different angles. It’s a lovely triangle of fluid movement and knowledge.

“It’s about confronting and dismantling white ownership and supremacy and, through that, giving land back to Indigenous people.”

Photo by Sarah White

An organizer for Black Visions Collective, a queer- and trans-centered organization of Black Lives Matter, Sophia’s background ranges from culinary arts and herbalism, to work as a postpartum doula. Growing up with Cherokee roots and a grandfather who was a soil conservationist, Sophia explains that a connection to the earth was always present. They are intentional about incorporating plant medicine in cooking for new parents—DNA is another way they encourage the community to return to the soil for healing purposes. 

Sophia: I helped create a group called Sprouting Birth Folk, which is an LGBTQ, all-BIPOC birthwork collective with connections to Spiral MN. I try to center the importance of herbs and plants and how healing and how transformation and intention are deeply intertwined with the land around you. 

As an organizer, food justice activist, and soundscape artist, Sarah has blended studies in environmental science, yoga, massage therapy, and urban farming to empower emotional liberation in communities of color and expand knowledge of holistic practices and herbalism. 

Photo by Sarah White

Sarah: I’m from a Black family with Choctaw and Cherokee connections. I’ve always been interested in organizing—to take a feeling and turn it into sounds/words/visions/actions. Studying Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy, I started to see how the structures within our connective tissues—the ones that teach us how to settle down, to turn off our flight or fight, and settle our anxiety—look like roots and things that grew in the earth. That’s what got me where I am now. The work I’m doing trying to heal a community that is constantly dealing with trauma—I think we could just be in soil and benefit. 

After studying photography, Marcellina transitioned into farming five years ago and has worked on farms in Hawaii, California, the Twin Cities, and at Dawn2Dusk, an organic farm in Cambridge, Minnesota, run by Kenyan immigrants Moses Momanyi and Lonah Onyancha. As first-generation Yoruba, connecting back to an Indigenous heritage has been a driving force. 

Marcellina: I was working on market farms, which can be sustainable for smaller, nuclear families but I think for a community, that’s not a sustainable way to live. It didn’t sit right from where I was in life and the work I’m trying to do. This is more in line with what I was called to do. Free food is incredible and something that my soul has truly enjoyed by experiencing. It’s how it should be but I think we are all looking for something deeper. It’s about confronting and dismantling white ownership and supremacy and, through that, giving land back to Indigenous people—that’s what I want to create space as far as the future goes. 

One of the places where DNA splits their time is on the Lily Springs Farm in Osceola, Wisconsin. A serene woodland area, it’s an urban landscape retreat they found through tips and connections on social media. From fruits and vegetables to herbs and flax, the growth is harvested with the help of volunteers and then brought back and distributed for free to people in need in the Twin Cities. 

Photo by Sarah White

Through Ashley O’Neill Prado and Jose Luis of Tamales y Bicicletas in Southside Minneapolis, DNA was able to gain access to a greenhouse space to grow many of their first plants and seedlings. It’s a communal space that helps educate the community on wild edibles, offers bike and garden tours, and hosts community meals.

With community, compost, and water support from Doe and the Lyndale Neighborhood Association, DNA is growing organic food on the block of 31st and Pillsbury in South Minneapolis where neighbors can learn about farming, harvest, and pick up food on a first-come, first-served basis. It’s also a place where Sarah hosts community bonfires in collaboration with Fernanda Sequeiros-Hart of Plant-Grow-Share.

Marcellina: They gave us a pretty large chunk of space there. It’s free for the community to harvest and most of the people who garden there are community members. Next door is Horn Towers which is home to many families and the first floor reserves a place where we can drop off food. If we can’t distribute directly to the people, it’s important that we have hubs where we know the food will get eaten by people who can thrive from getting fresh produce.

Sarah: Since there are so many neighbors, there’s an opportunity to show them the power of harvesting themselves. Having people know they can just grab what they need directly from the garden feels like less pressure on us to figure out where the food can go but more ownership to the people who live there. They’re touching it; they’re in it so they want to take care of it, protect it. 

Another local organization, Project Sweetie Pie, offered up an empty lot on 26th and Oliver, a project of love they’ve named the Wakanda Farm. Unlike the other farming spaces, this plot had no pre-existing infrastructure or usable soil and little to no access to water. With 30 cubic yards of soil donated from the Mdewakanton Dakota community in Shakopee, they’ve activated the land to be a flourishing community farm and future plans include a space to host community events, workshops, and land discussions. 

Sophia: Plants will grow regardless as long as you give them enough love, water, sunshine, and soil—we had all of that. This project isn’t about perfection, it’s about practice, embodiment, and healing. There’s been a lot of long, hot days (at the Wakanda Farm) of creating, questioning, and reminding ourselves that we have knowledge that we don’t even know—and it worked. It was solidifying of the fact that within our group we have interdependence. 

Photo by Sarah White

Despite being a grassroots movement based on passion for community, the physical act of growing food isn’t a free undertaking. And though social awareness of the project is expanding, many of the opportunities for funding have been economically gate-kept, leading to a time and energy demand on the founders who juggle full-time lives. Currently, DNA is searching for fiscal sponsorship and direct reparations to rebuild a communal food system and liberate change on a larger and more permanent level. 

Sarah: We want to break down not the check but the change. My whole life’s work has been moving toward the liberation and healing of all brown people through all the ways that we can. I use a lot of words, but I’m an action person as well, I’m out there in the dirt doing all the work I can do physically too. Our work is our mission statement. 

Sophia: The labor that keeps us alive is often the labor that often doesn’t get paid for, which this project proves because we are so underfunded. There are people who are practicing food justice but they match what philanthropy wants them to be in a very systemic way. And then there are these three random Black people—women, femmes, queers—growing food who all have a dynamic voice, but the first question we get asked is “are you a nonprofit?” Reparations are a systemic change, not just giving a one-time donation. When thinking about transformative justice: harm has been caused and harm needs to be acknowledged. How do you acknowledge that and support people in the process of healing? Giving money doesn’t just move things forward. There has to be a system that’s created to distribute equally and substantially. Small steps lead to big change; change leads to liberation.