Soil, plants, and people are partners.
By Susan Maas
Avian flu, bioterrorism, HIV, Big Tobacco: During her wide-ranging career advancing health, Tracy Sides (M.P.H. ’95, Ph.D. ’06) has fought them all. She even, for a time, worked as a massage therapist.
But the seed for her current and favorite role—cultivating health by nurturing relationships between food, nature, and people as executive director of a community-focused food hub on St. Paul's East Side—was planted decades ago.
She remembers being 8 years old and pulling a crisp, sweet carrot from her family’s backyard garden. It seemed a miracle. “I remember being in just stark awe that that little seed we had planted months earlier took the sun, and the soil, and the water and turned it into this big orange root,” Sides recalls. “And I ate that, and it became part of me. It was a powerful experience, that realization of just how interdependent I was with the world around me.”
Sides is founder and executive director of Urban Oasis, an organization that brings residents, farmers, food vendors, educators, caterers, and cooks together in a whole, healthy food system from seed to table and back to soil. It’s rooted in the city’s richly diverse East Side: a cornucopia of varied food traditions that include Hmong, Native American, African American, Mexican, and others.
Tracy Sides, left, and Nykanyana Johnson prepare chilaquiles for a community meal at Urban Oasis
“This land has for eons been supporting different populations of people, from the Dakota to every new wave of immigrants to come to Minnesota,” she says. “Building a focus on the power of food to build healthy and wealthy communities seemed like a good idea here. Food is at the intersection of so many disparities, but also, so many opportunities.”
The initiative is about more than nutritious, affordable, sustainably grown food: Equity and inclusion are at the heart of every undertaking, Sides says. She calls Urban Oasis “regenerative” in that its food production practices respect the lives of all participants—soil, plants, and people. The organization is dedicated to strengthening and illuminating a sustainable community food system while providing education, social connection, jobs, and job training.
Urban Oasis grew out of a partnership between Sides and the Lower Phalen Creek Project and got a big boost in fall 2013 when it won the Saint Paul Foundation’s $1 million Forever St. Paul Challenge. Aspects of the project, including its physical location, have changed since its inception, Sides says, but the vision hasn’t. “It’s a place where all of these food stories can be honored and shared, and a place where a whole, healthy local food system could be demonstrated.”
East Siders can experience Urban Oasis in lots of different ways, Sides says. There’s the Urban Oasis Catering service, which gets more than half of its produce from local farmers. There’s Healthy Meals in a SNAP!, a whole food cooking skills series for participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. There’s the twice-monthly “open kitchen” at Kitchen on the Bluff, where participants gather, share social support, and prepare meals together.
There are the Urban Oasis condiment carts, built by a local carpenter and featuring locally made rhubarb-tomato ketchup, honey mustard, and sweet pepper relish, at St. Paul Saints baseball games. The relish is emblematic of the organization’s commitment to food stories: It was created a century ago by the chef’s great-grandmother-in-law, one of the first women to graduate with a business degree from the U.
“Her senior project was a business plan for a café, and when she graduated, she said to a friend, ‘What do you think? Let’s go do this!’ So these two young women in the early 1900s opened a café that was in the First Bank building. The relish was a recipe that got handed down through the family.”
This summer, East Side residents and visitors can check out the edible streetscape project Urban Oasis is coordinating in partnership with the Dayton’s Bluff Community Council and Urban Roots, a youth development and conservation nonprofit. The streetscape features 10 different concrete, 5-foot planters along East Seventh Street, each one showcasing herbs and vegetables from a particular culture’s culinary heritage.
“The idea is to highlight, honor and share the food traditions we have on the East Side and to make the space a little more walkable and welcoming,” Sides says. Each planter, created with community input and filled on a community planting day in May, includes recipes and information about local growers, as well as which retailers and restaurateurs specialize in that cuisine. The planter project will culminate in a community meal August 6 with dishes created by local chefs.
May Seng Cha, Urban Oasis’s operations director and an East Sider, says the Urban Oasis approach to healthy food is not preachy or prescriptive, but centered on accessibility, joy, and connection. After a recent Healthy Meals in a SNAP! session, Cha had a gratifying conversation with one of the participants.
“She expressed that she’d always thought that eating healthy is expensive, but that through this program, she realized that by shopping local, visiting farmers’ markets, buying on sale [or in bulk], it doesn’t have to be,” Cha says.
Sides says it’s both “exhilarating and terrifying” to work on such a big, unprecedented, and hopefully far-reaching endeavor.
“There’s no cookbook for this.”