$1 million idea has morphed

The Standard Oil Building in the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary will likely be demolished. So, Tracy Side’s idea to turn the building into a food hub, which she won $1 million for, had to change. But, she says, the crux of her idea remains. (file photo)
The Standard Oil Building in the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary will likely be demolished. So, Tracy Side’s idea to turn the building into a food hub, which she won $1 million for, had to change. But, she says, the crux of her idea remains. (file photo)

Sans building, Tracy Sides switches focus to food programs

When Tracy Sides won $1 million for her idea to transform the old Standard Oil building into a food hub for farmers, gardeners and anyone who enjoys eating, the idea sounded romantic.
Sides won the $1 Million Forever Saint Paul Challenge in 2013. Sponsored by the St. Paul Foundation, the contest was driven by one question: “What would you do with $1 million to make Saint Paul great?”

The $1 million was leftover from funds set aside for the 2008 Republican National Convention held in St. Paul.

The funds were donated by the Minneapolis-St. Paul 2008 Host Committee, a bipartisan group that persuaded the RNC to come to St. Paul.

Sides’ idea for the $1 million beat out 945 others, and she secured over half of the 16,000 votes.

She proposed that the large skeleton of a concrete building be revamped to hold the Urban Oasis community food hub, where gardeners and farmers could bring extra produce to be canned, cooked or redistributed. There would be big coolers and food processing equipment available for public use.

But now, the Standard Oil building is looking like a likely candidate for demolition. Built in 1918, the empty structure is located east of the Mississippi River in the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary and can be seen from the Kellogg Street Bridge.

Don Varney, landscape architect for St. Paul Parks and Rec reports the city is taking steps towards demolishing the building, after determining that “there was no way to sustainably make it work.”

The city looked at ways to re-use it, but concluded that the giant brick and concrete shell was not a good candidate for rehabilitation.

So, Sides project had to change.

Focus remains on food

Sides says the spirit of the idea, to create a community food hub, remains intact. But, with the building out of the picture, the $1 million in grant money is now being used for different East Side projects centering on providing residents with nutritious food options.

Sides, with her company Urban Oasis, has been focusing on a myriad of programming, including food product creation and catering; training people how to make healthful meals; and sponsoring community events like last year’s East Side Food Fest.

Her organization is also teaming up with the Latino Economic Development Company to organize a new community incubator kitchen called Kitchen on the Bluff that small businesses can use for food preparation. Located near the intersection of East Third Street and Bates Avenue, itwould serve as a way for food trucks and other small food operations to have an easily accessible, affordable commercial kitchen available to them.

Ann Mulholland, vice president of grants and programs for the St. Paul Foundation, the organization that doled out the $1 million grant, says the evolution of Sides’ idea is natural.

While the idea will no longer pertain to the Standard Oil Building, “the pitched idea is the same, except for location,” Mulholland says.

“The notion around healthy food has really taken off on the East Side,” she says, attributing that in part to the work of Urban Oasis.

Sides notes there are a lot of new food resources around the area. For instance, there’s the soon to open Kitchen on the Bluff, and there’s a farmer’s cooperative working out of the East Side

Enterprise Center, located near East 7th Street and Arcade. In the center, farmers in the cooperative have access to large coolers and food prep space, as well as a distribution network farmers can sell their products through.

She says that because other organizations happened to be working on a food distribution hub, Urban Oasis looked to focus on other ideas that weren’t already being addressed.

The original concept “sounds romantic,” Sides says. But “you have to respond to the circumstances at hand and continue to steward the essence of that idea to what’s workable in the landscape of reality.”

She makes the analogy: “we describe these huge majestic oak trees ... but in reality a mature oak tree doesn’t just appear.”

So where’s the money?

To be more specific about where the money went, $675,000 of the $1 million prize went indirectly to Sides’ new company, Urban Oasis, which was formed after she won the grant.

The Lower Phalen Creek Project is acting as Sides’ fiscal agent, paying her and nine other employees on contracts. The other $325,000 is in the hands of other community groups.

About $300,000 of the $675,000 has been spent over the last year on staffing and programming, including starting the Urban Oasis catering business, putting on the 2014 Urban Oasis Food Fest, and holding a free 10-week healthy-eating cooking course.

The courses teach East Side residents about how to cook and prepare fresh food. The first series of classes, which is just wrapping up, had a dozen participants.

The second set of classes starts June 18, and will be only for people who receive federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

Catering and food products too

Urban Oasis’ offshoot catering company was launched in March 2015, and focuses on seasonal menus with locally sourced ingredients. Sides says Urban Oasis tries to get its ingredients from underserved Minnesota farmers and food vendors.

In another related business venture, Urban Oasis will launch a line of food products in July, including condiments, which could be sold throughout the Twin Cities.

The proceeds from the catering and food products sales would then be used to continue to offer healthy meal-making programs to East Side residents and SNAP participants for free or at least at a low price.

“Part of our job right now is taking a long view and looking at how we sustain the work and the impacts that we’re having over time, thinking beyond this initial Forever Saint Paul kickstart,” Sides explains.

Time’s ticking

Of the $675,000, the $375,000 that’s remaining is required by the St. Paul Foundation to be spent by the end of the year.

Sides says the money is being spent, as follows: 30 percent towards staff time, supplies and equipment for the catering and food products businesses; 25 percent towards education and training programming; 20 percent towards community building, with events like a film screening, a 5K race in September to encourage healthy lifestyles, and last year’s Urban Oasis Food Fest (and a second year of the fest for this summer); and about 25 percent towards administrative costs.

Other programming will roll out this summer. For instance, there are several public food-skills workshops that will be scheduled this summer, including a free public knife skills class, and some chef workshops, where cooks representing different cultural cooking traditions will teach their craft.

What about the other $325K?

The other $325,000 is in the hands of Local Initiatives Support Corporation Twin Cities, an organization that, according to its website “rais[es], leverages and invests financial resources in local community development.”

LISC is working with a small group of neighborhood organizations including Hmong American Partnership, East Side Neighborhood Development Company, and Merrick Community Services to talk about how to engage people of color when it comes to making nutritious food choices, and then developing a strategy to provide them with ready access to fresh foods.

The neighborhood groups will determine how to best use that money, says Mary Wheeler, program officer at LISC.

Could still go in Bruce Vento

Though the Standard Oil Building is likely to be demolished, possibly before the summer ends, there’s still a possibility of Urban Oasis contributing to a facility in Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary.

The Lower Phalen Creek Project is planning to put an interpretive center in the park, which might include a cafe run by Urban Oasis.

But that remains to be seen.

Though Sides’ idea has taken a different form, Mulholland says the grant is being well spent.

“We told them when they won, ‘You can implement your idea in many ways.’

“We believe in pursuing really big ideas and big opportunities, because that’s where new solutions come from.”

As far as St. Paul Foundation is concerned, Sides’ big idea is working.

The nonprofit has even earned a couple of other grants, proving  that it’s got momentum -- Urban Oasis recently won a USDA Food Insecurity Incentives Program grant for $45,230. The grant will be used for “a one-year project to test the impact of financial incentives, with and without food skills training, on fruit and vegetable purchases and consumption by low-income SNAP customers,” according to the USDA.

“We’re happy for them; we feel good about where they’re at,” Mulholland says.

Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ESRPatrickLark.

Urban Oasis work in review

So far, Urban Oasis has done the following programming, in part thanks to the grant money that Urban Oasis’ executive director Tracy Sides won from 2013’s $1 Million Forever Saint Paul Challenge:
• In June 2014, Urban Oasis held a film screening with five partner organizations Another film screening was held in late April 2015.
• Held the first annual Urban Oasis Food Fest in August 2014, which drew around 1,000 people. The event was put on with the help of 50 volunteers who helped people can 160 jars of tomatoes.
• Developed a healthy meal-making training program that shares food skills for use at home or in the job market and that launched as a pilot program for East Side residents in January 2015.
• Created plans for catering and food products that will launch in 2015 and prioritize purchasing produce from local underserved farmers.
• Began publishing a monthly e-newsletter that features articles related to Urban Oasis programs.
• Established an office in the East Side Enterprise Center in September 2014, allowing easier collaboration with the other local organizations with offices there.
• Partnered with the Latino Economic Development Center to reopen a commercial incubator kitchen, Kitchen on the Bluff, in the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood.
• Convened a Community Advisory Committee to inform the development of Urban Oasis.
• Worked with the Community Advisory Committee to produce a five-year strategic framework and implementation plan to guide Urban Oasis initiative.
• Established administrative infrastructure to develop and implement programming, and track, monitor and evaluate program activities.

Future events planned by Urban Oasis:

• Urban Oasis Food Fest and 5K fun run will take place Sept. 19. The goal of the event is to connect neighbors and create friends through the common thread of food. Tracy Sides, director of Urban Oasis, hopes the event will draw 3,000 people.
• The commercial incubator kitchen, Kitchen on the Bluff, will hold an open house in June. The kitchen will be managed by Urban Oasis and will provide start-up businesses with commercial kitchen space.
• Urban Oasis will host monthly community dinners starting in July, running through October
• In June, they’ll host ServeSafe certification classes at the East Side Enterprise Center
• Starting in July, Urban Oasis will host three free public cooking classes at the new incubator kitchen in Dayton’s Bluff


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