Monday, October 7, 2013

On the Screen: Sustainable Food and Nature on the Same Plate– A Welcome “Mixed Message” at Bruce Vento Nature Preserve

By Sage Passi

Introductory screen in the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary guide video #1.

This month’s Watershed Weekly video, The Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary , playing Thursdays in October at 5 PM on SCC (Suburban Community Channels) Channel 15 is a replay from a couple of years ago (November 2011). You can now also link to this series of videos on You Tube at Airing this video at this time is auspicious, given the latest developments in store for the area. But I mean development in a different sense of the word that doesn’t threaten the progress that has happened there over the past ten years. 

A train yard was just one known use of this area. Video Clip from Tour #1 with Sue Vento.
On the edge of downtown St. Paul on the Mississippi River (in the area where Phalen Creek once flowed into the Mississippi River) is a centuries long sacred place for the Dakota Indian people which in the 19th and 20th centuries was turned into a dump, a train yard and a brewery. Over the last ten years it was transformed into the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary. The story of the park’s cultural history and transformation is told in the video by Dakota elder Jim Rock, National Park historian John Anfinson and others. We also get a good description of the
A lot of remediation had to be done to the area.  Video clip from Tour #2.
ecological transformations of the large prairie, flood plain, wetland, oak savanna and woodland restoration which was done largely by volunteers including the East Side Youth Conservation Corps from the Community Design Center (now known as Urban Roots). The video ends with a description of the next phase: the design and development of a cultural and interpretive center. Since this video was completed, new developments are on the horizon for the center.

The Urban Oasis - A hub for connecting food, nature and culture

The building currently located at the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary.
(Video clip from YouTube video listed below)


A sketch of what the existing building makeover might resemble.
(Video clip from YouTube video listed below)
In a recent announcement, The Urban Oasis, a concept for a hub to connect food, nature and culture is the winner of the $1 million dollar Forever Saint Paul Challenge to transform existing space in the vacant four story building at the Bruce Vento Sanctuary. Tracy Sidles, an entrepreneur and activist submitted this award-winning idea to create a commercial kitchen and classrooms at the hub that would house a catering company, food truck, worker-owned food processing cooperative for local produce, entrepreneurs who create healthy value-added food products, and offer classes in food growing, preservation and cooking skills to the community. Imagine buying tomatoes at the St. Paul Farmers Market and learning to can them at the Oasis kitchen! You can get a glimpse of her vision for the Urban Oasis by checking out this You Tube video at, or by reading this article from UofM News.

Tracy Sidles gives viewers a look at the inside of the current building.
(Video clip from her YouTube video)
I was thrilled to hear this news. Most of you may not know that the first phase of my career involved management of a neighborhood food cooperative in St. Anthony Park in St. Paul. It sat directly across from the University of Minnesota campus and had a remarkable shelf life for a small business. For 25 years University students, professors, grad students and neighbors came in daily to get lunch or food for dinner. They liked to purchase sustainable foods, chat and volunteer. The store helped connect people and most shoppers were volunteers who put in anywhere from 3-12 hours per month (or many more) to keep it viable. It felt much like a web of support and a model for the community that should keep widening and growing. But I experienced two hard learned lessons in the early nineties. Businesses fail and communities get disconnected and disempowered much like ecosystems. After 25 years, the lack of parking and competition with Hamden Park Co-op (a storefront it had once bailed out originally called Green Grass Co-op) located a mile and a half south of “SAP Co-op,” as it was once affectionately known, forced its closure.

Years later, as I got involved in environmental education on the east side of St. Paul and began working for the Watershed District, I would run into many of those same people who I sold organic food to or shared conversation with as we filled bins or washed lettuce. In the past these people had been the Board members, the bank depositors, the cheese cutters and the produce volunteers. But now they were the entomologists, the researchers, the stormwater engineers and the ornithologists I would cross paths with at conferences, sit on committees with or bump into at tours. And we were still working on the same page to resolve environmental issues and to make our community more sustainable and connected. 

Educator Don Booth sampling macroinvertebrates.with his fourth graders at Ames Lake.
Wouldn't an interpretive center here be a helpful addition to the community if we had money for it?

When one of the entomologists recently offered to help me teach macroinvertebrate lessons to kids at my favorite restored wetland, Ames Lake, I recalled fondly the vision I once had for this spot. Ames Lake, just south of Lake Phalen, is an urban area rescued from its 40-year fate as a shopping mall and turned back into a lake and wetland prairie.  At one optimistic point in the process of reclaiming this area, I had imagined having an interpretive center/food co-op on the edge of the lake where the shopping mall met its “fate.” After all, the Watershed District had invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in this location. Why not take it further, I had thought at the time, and foster the health and well being of the people who live in this community? I like the “mixed message” of locating “sustainable” food operations and teaching ecology in the same “back forty.” It helps tie our messages together and reminds us of the connections we share with the natural world and our own survival and viability.

I’m glad to see there are other people stepping up to the plate with the ability to make these visions come to life. The longer I work on projects the more I realize the threads of our connections are long, intertwined and repeat themselves. This week as I was coordinating a rain garden planting at First Hmong Assembly of God Church in east St. Paul, through conversation, I discovered that one of the church volunteers five years ago was part of that cadre of East Side Conservation Corps high school students who helped rebuilt Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary. She recalled that she had also donned waders and helped restore the shoreline at Lake Phalen. It’s a small interconnected world!


It is really exciting to hear about the Urban Oasis situated at the mouth of an area that was once connected to our Phalen Chain of Lakes. I look forward to learning how to can tomatoes while looking out the windows onto the wide expanse of prairie and wetland areas that kids I know helped restore.

The new outdoor classroom at Bruce Vento uses limestone
quarried in Minnesota.  Photo by Patrick Larkin - Lillie News
 Breaking update:
As this article was going to print, I just learned of another new feature at Bruce Vento that has recently been completed. Dan McGuiness of the Lower Phalen Creek Project has been working to build an outdoor “classroom” setting to enhance the park’s options, with the help of grant money from the McNeely Foundation. The classroom opens for a celebration Saturday, Oct. 19 at noon. See this link to the Lillie News article provided by reporter, Patrick Larkin -

Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary entrance and interpretive signage.  Video clip from Tour #1.

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