Left to right: Dominican students Mahnoor Saghir, Samantha Gallagher, Lauren Bell, Gabriela Diaz and Michelle Scott help out at Austin City Town Hall Market on Oct. 20. | Shanel Romain

Two women are on a mission to bring healthier food options to the West Side. Michelle Scott, an Austin resident and owner of Thank God 4 Raw Vegan Treats, and Dr. Sarah Jones, an assistant professor of nutrition sciences at Dominican University in River Forest, have teamed up to address the food desert problem in Austin.

Scott, who sells a range of products that are all vegan, is the cofounder and executive director of the Community First Foundation. Scott said she established the organization with her daughter during the pandemic.

“I did a community assessment in Austin,” she said. “I needed to know why this is a food desert and what more can I do? Dr. Jones pushed me to make this more than just an assessment.”

Austin residents shop at Thank God for Vegan Treats Farmers Market table on Thursday, October 20 outisde of the Austin Town Hall. | Shanel Romain.

That push has resulted in a formal collaboration between Dominican, Community First and Thank God 4 Raw Vegan Treats.

Jones and Scott were at the Austin City Town Hall Market, 5610 W. Lake St. in Austin, earlier this month to raise awareness about their project to get the West Side eating healthier today.

Jones said she met Scott while teaching an undergraduate nutrition course at Dominican that requires students to analyze community health data.

“The year that Michelle took the class, students were focusing on different neighborhoods in Chicago,” Jones said. “They look at health-related statistics, demographics, access to food, SNAP participation — all those different things. But that’s not the whole picture right? You can’t know a community just by looking at the numbers so the next step was driving through the communities and looking at them through a nutrition lens.”

Jones said students evaluated the number and kind of food retailers in communities, places that offered people an opportunity to be physically active and other ground-level observations.

Scott took the course and ran with it, eventually leveraging her knowledge to create a dynamic learning experience for future students of Dr. Jones’ course like Samantha Gallagher, 31.

Gallagher was at Austin City Town Hall Market to get the same ground-level data and feedback that ultimately prompted Scott to start her own organization designed to address neighborhood food disparities. Gallagher said she’ll then use the information to bring greater awareness about nutrition to West Siders.

“What we’re doing today is trying to get talk to people and see what their experience has been and see how we can personalize this information [on healthy eating] for them,” she said. “We want the information to be useful for them so they can apply it to their daily lives.”

Scott said she’s just continuing on the path established by her mother.

“She passed away last October in my hands,” she said. “I knew she was passing the torch to me because she waiting for me to come into that room. I told my kids that grandma passed the torch so we have to keep moving. The legacy continues with us.

“We’re just trying to help our residents become more aware of the benefits of fruits and vegetables,” Scott added. “It may be simple for others but not that simple for them. So, we’re trying to get them acclimated to more fruits and vegetables and get them off medication and reduce their pharmaceutical costs. That’s our goal.”  

CONTACT: shanel@growingcommunitymedia.com