Tracy Sides: Public health alumna and St. Paul community builder
Tracy Sides followed a long and winding path before starting Urban Oasis, her nonprofit organization focused on improving the St. Paul community through the wonders of food. She began as a University of Minnesota student in Public Health, followed by a period of “testing the waters” before she found her calling. Now, after starting Urban Oasis on the East Side of St. Paul, she couldn’t be happier with the connection and change she is experiencing in her community.
After earning her master’s degree, she started in the field of chronic disease epidemiology with a law firm that worked against the tobacco industry, but she felt too distant from the impact of her work.
After leaving the law firm Tracy studied STDs and HIV with the Minnesota Department of Health. She later returned to the U for her PhD and found employment in the Center of Infectious Disease and Policy.
Feeling restricted by the traditional prevention-based public health setting, Tracy wanted to take action to feel closer to the impact of her work and bridge her personal and professional lives. She began to realize “the real foundation of health comes from a relationship with oneself and the environment, or place, they were in.”
Food interested Tracy because it connects everyone to the environment and has the power to bring communities together.
First after leaving her public health job, she founded the organization Bravely Be, which aimed to build community through movie showings and other programs. She was inspired by connecting food, people and the land through the National Public Lands Day, where she organized a planting day by the bluff and brought food out for the community to share.
Shortly afterward, Tracy and a few other active community members entered the Forever St. Paul Challenge, a contest that awarded one million dollars to the winning idea for improving St. Paul. Out of nearly one thousand entrants, Tracy’s team won and set up their nonprofit Urban Oasis.
Urban Oasis aims to provide the city with:
- Create a food business, including wholesale food products and a catering service.
- Education and training on healthy cooking and food preservation
- Community building fests through food-based events, film screenings, and other activities
Urban Oasis currently works to expand markets for underserved farmers, inspire and nourish consumers, and share the narratives of people from diverse cultural backgrounds. In the future, they plan to add gardening demonstrations, cooking classes, an event space, a farmer cooperative, and a café.
So what advice does Tracy have for students who want to work in food systems?
- Listen to your gut
- Take any opportunity you can get; the end of one journey may lead you to the next place.
- Figure out what makes you feel alive and just do that.
Tracy Sides views the world holistically. Her passion for building community is clear, and she has found the best way to do that is through food. Her success story is encouraging for anyone wanting to improve their community and its health.