Growing up in Bangladesh, Minara Begum learned to cook and garden at a young age. Since moving to the US, she has planted a number of South Asian crops – such as squash, taro root and amaranth greens – in her backyard to feed her family for the year.
When Minara met fellow Detroit resident Emily Staugaitis, the two developed a strong friendship. Though Minara did not speak English and Staugaitis did not speak Bengali, food became their medium of communication, helping them overcome their language barrier.
Their friendship eventually gave birth to Bandhu Gardens
, a project which helps sell the surplus vegetables that are grown in the backyards of six families to popular local restaurants, says
an article on National Public Radio's (NPR) blog, The Salt.
According to Staugaitis, her female Bangladeshi neighbours would often tell her that they needed work and local restauranteurs would say they wanted locally sourced produce. Putting the two together has been a masterstroke: The project has helped Minara and her neighbours turn their cooking and gardening skills into an entrepreneurial venture.
Under the project, they also hold pop-up dinners where traditional Bangladeshi dinners are served. Recently, cooking classes have been added to Bandhu Garden's services.
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Minara Begum (foreground, far right), holds her daughter Laki while talking to customers at the first Bandhu Gardens pop-up dinner NPR
Last year, the project sold 120 pounds of greens, beans and peppers and 25 pounds of squash to restaurants and this year, it will take a spot at Eastern Market, the large public farmer's market in Detroit.
Though the lean operation currently does not make enough money to allow the women to make a living, the real benefits are still massive. The women now enjoy greater autonomy in their otherwise male-dominated households.
Minara says the profits from the project helps them send money home to relatives in Bangladesh to aid them in buying medication or to supplement their food budget. In addition, each event can net $150 per cook.
Minara and Staugaitis hope to make Bandhu Gardens into a network that helps new families in the neighbourhood to find economic opportunities and to learn to navigate the complicated foreign systems like health care. They also plan to promote women's empowerment by connecting with women-run businesses.
With the country's social and political climate in flux, Bandhu Gardens acts like a beacon of hope.
“It has reinforced that this is important work to be doing right now," Staugaitis says, adding, "We will...use it as a platform for other people...to connect with people and cultures they may be unfamiliar with."