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With “Urban Oasis,” U of M alumna looks to position Saint Paul as a world-class example of sustainability

What would you do if you had $1 million to make Saint Paul an even better place to live?

University of Minnesota School of Public Health alumna and owner of Bravely Be, Tracy Sides, Ph.D., M.P.H., recently took the Forever Saint Paul Challenge as a unique opportunity to make the Minnesota capitol a world-class example of sustainability.

Of the nearly 1,000 submissions to the million-dollar question, Sides’s Urban Oasis concept won with more than 16,000 votes.

By using the money to transform a vacant building in St. Paul’s Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary into a food hub that will connect food, nature and culture, Sides hopes to make Saint Paul more prosperous, creative and equitable.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that our current food system, and mainly our diet of processed foods, is killing us and endangering the planet,” said Sides. “Our survival depends on a better way of producing our food, and food hubs are an important part of that process.”

Elaborating, Sides explained one of the reasons for the Urban Oasis was because local farmers have no way to sell all the produce they’re growing, and as a result, 350 million pounds of Minnesota-grown vegetables go unharvested or unsold each year, partly due to a lack of available processing capacity.

How will the Urban Oasis benefit St. Paul?

  • Local farmers will have a new outlet for their produce.
  • Schools, restaurants, hospitals and consumers will have a source for locally grown, healthy food products.
  • Entrepreneurs who want to establish small food businesses can get trained and start operating in the building’s commercial kitchen.
  • People will learn cooking and food preservation skills
  • People will have opportunities to share in community meals.
  • Jobs will be created.
  • The city of Saint Paul will have a new revenue stream from sales taxes.
  • Visitors to the adjacent St. Paul Saints ballpark can enjoy a healthy snack.

“Essentially, we will be extending the efforts of local farmers and food-related programs to build a thriving local food system,” explained Sides. “At the Oasis, farmers will be able to process and receive payment for locally grown produce; employers can host events; and visitors could take cooking classes, learn to be the next food entrepreneur or feast at a food truck serving local fare.”

The next steps? Sides will work with The Saint Paul Foundation to create a grant agreement and then begin the cultivating the Urban Oasis seeds, by creating a business plan from which the creation and operation of the Urban Oasis will grow.

“We hope to have some functions of the signature food hub up and running within a year or two, but it will likely be 2016 before the building at the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary will be ready for us to take occupancy as a major tenant,” said Sides. “In the coming months we’ll be establishing a way for people to stay connected with the unfolding story of the Urban Oasis.”

Right now, those who want to help can send their contact information and particular interests or skills to Matt Santori (matthew.santori@mnpartners.org) at the Saint Paul Foundation.

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