Urban Greens is like a hub in a wheel, connecting local farmers, activists, and innovators to the community. We are proud to work with small businesses, individuals and nonprofits across the region and want to take this chance to introduce you to some of them.
The following testimonies were compiled by Brown students in Elizabeth Rush’s spring 2020 testimonial storytelling class. At the border between oral history and creative nonfiction, testimonial-style writing requires that a writer engage in a thoughtful and, ideally, reciprocal relationship with the community members whom their projects chronicle. In this way, this special project reflects many of the values central to Urban Green’s community-centered mission.
I called the company Lost Art because in many other cultures, people are still fermenting at home, but the practice has greatly disappeared in the US as food has been commercialized. When pasteurization became the norm, food-borne illness decreased substantially, however we didn’t realize that along with the bad bacteria that causes illness we were also killing all the good bacteria that kept our immune system healthy.
Mostly my parents’ generation and my generation didn’t eat many live foods and didn’t ferment anything at home. A lot of my customers say, “Oh, my grandparents used to do that,” or “I remember my grandma always had her sauerkraut in the basement,” but they had never done it themselves.
I’m from Rhode Island. I grew up in Chepachet and went to Ponaganset High School. I went to college in Vermont and I did some of my college in Ireland where I met my husband Padraic. Both of our parents have their own businesses and we knew we wanted to do the same. After traveling and living in the UK and Australia for some time we decided to come back to Rhode Island and start our own business.
When I lived in Australia, my main job was running a program called the Food Know-How program. It was for a nonprofit that did a lot of gardening and food projects. We started running fermentation workshops and pickling workshops, to teach people how to use the extra vegetables that you have or how to preserve the summer harvest for the winter. That’s when I got interested in fermentation.
My grandfather was a very well-known conservationist in Rhode Island and the director of the Audubon Society, one of the state’s environmentalist organizations. I think probably that’s where my real interest in the environment came from, him, and my grandmother, who is still alive. She actually did all the illustrations of vegetables that are on the Lost Art jars. She was a school teacher, but she was also an amateur expert on mushrooms and painted them as a hobby.
I studied environmental science in high school which made me interested in doing that for my undergraduate degree. Later I got my masters in environmental economics in Scotland. In addition to running Lost Art I also work at the University of Rhode Island. There I coordinate an internship program to help students find jobs in clean energy and teach them about the energy sector.
I want people to understand why sauerkraut is a very safe food. I’m always explaining to my customers that if you open sauerkraut and it’s fizzy, that’s a good sign! If you opened a jar of pickles that had been pasteurized, and it was fizzy, that would be an indicator that there might be bad bacteria present. But in sauerkraut, when you open it, and it’s fizzy, it indicates that the good bacteria is alive and doing its job.
There’s anaerobic bacteria and there’s aerobic bacteria. Anaerobic bacteria live without oxygen; while aerobic bacteria like oxygen. So, when you’re looking at food, say, a pile of banana peels for example, if you leave them out, aerobic bacteria that lives in the air will start digesting those peels and, basically that’s the process we call rot. Meanwhile, when you’re looking at fermentation, it’s an anaerobic process. The main thing you’re doing when you are fermenting vegetables is not creating rot but eliminating air. That’s why you salt the vegetables and get the liquid out. The anaerobic bacteria digest the sugars in the vegetables and they produce carbon dioxide. The air lock allows carbon dioxide to get out without oxygen getting back in, and then the fermenting vegetable goes through a series of colonizations by different bacteria, ending with lactobacillus.
At Lost Art we use local produce as much as possible. I wish we could be 100% local and organic, but sometimes it has to be one or the other. You know, it was like, we could do a hundred percent local, but getting a hundred percent local and organic can be really expensive. I buy local organic cabbage because it’s part of our mission, but it is way more expensive than if I just bought cabbage on a regular commercial conventional wholesale market, like four or five times more expensive. But that’s what the local farmers need to stay in business and it’s important for our community.
Conventional produce is really quite cheap compared to what it should be if you took into account all the externalities. We are not considering the water pollution, the air pollution. And those things really should be accounted for in the price because they’re externalities that society has to pay for, but presently it’s not factored into the cost of the food. So, when you buy a steak, you’re not paying for all the water pollution and all of the CO2 that that cow made during its life. It’s just not getting accounted for and it really should.
If I could have my products be a lower price, I would, of course. I’m not sure that price is the only thing defining equal access but I think it is a major issue that many people can’t afford my products. It is so difficult for small producers to compete with giant food producers, like the margins are just really, really low.
What we are trying to do is provide jobs for people in the community and we try to pay our employees as much as we can. Nobody at Lost Art gets paid minimum wage. But we sell a $10 jar of sauerkraut. It is not affordable to a lot of people.
Actually, I just remembered one time, it was funny, when Padraic and I were going up to this brewery that had asked me to talk about the business for whatever reason. I realized, on our way up there, that I didn’t bring a jar with me. I was like, oh shoot, I don’t even have anything to show or pass around. And Padraic said we should stop and buy one at a store. And I said, “No, it’s too expensive!” It just came out of my mouth and it was really funny because later he said that while I was presenting and everybody laughed. But it was true. I said, no, I’m not going to stop and buy it because it’s $10 and I can’t afford it.
So I recognize that it’s a problem. But for us, I suppose it’s just a problem that we chose not to really tackle because I make it as cheaply as I can. But if I could have it be a lower price, I would.
I donated to Urban Greens, I think maybe five years ago, and although it took a long time for it to get going, I was glad they were really thoughtful about it and got their funding and got the investment that they needed to actually open a big enough store that people would go to. I always kind of knew that our product would be in there. Of course we shop there, we’re members.
It’s nice to see money stay in the community. When I worked with a larger chain grocery store in the area I would have to call to follow up for my invoices and it was like I was practically calling people in another country. It made me realize that all the money is going out of the community, where with something like Urban Greens that money is cycling back in. Plus, Urban Greens also has other missions besides just making a profit: they’re doing other things, providing other services, and also food itself is so important to the way that people feel about where they live. I believe a sense of place is really important and I think that Providence has a lot of work to do on building community. But having a local market that you can really be proud of and where you know people is a good start.
I am told to meet Martin Beck, an artisanal cattle rancher, at Cloverbud Ranch on Jepson Lane across from the big electrical substation. When I arrive, Beck is on the phone, leaning against his truck. There are no buildings, just a double track leading across a land bridge to a gate. As soon as he hangs up, he introduces himself and fills me in on the call, a discussion about co-branding his beef as a way to reach a wider market. His excitement is palpable. He continues his story as we walk down the track, around the gate, and duck under an electric fence that is supposed to be “hot” but isn’t. Several dozen cattle are milling around the field. We walk amongst them as we talk.
I’ve been at this about eight years. I’m a landscape architect by trade, but that career collapsed in front of me in 2008. I was working for a design-build firm, and discretionary spending for landscaping just plummeted. I saw the local food scene as something that was on the rise. My dad’s a veterinarian, so we’ve had historic family interest in animals, but I never – I never farmed. I never had cattle. I never had land.
It’s kind of a miracle to put this business together from zero. I basically bought some cows, found a spot where somebody would let me put them in their field for a daily rate – that’s called contract grazing. The animals were raised up to weight; I’d get them hauled to slaughter; I’d pay for their kill. I bought a license and named a brand. Those animals were hung two weeks, cut to my specs, and sold in beautiful packages that said “Cloverbud Ranch”.
I had my own brand of beef, but for a while I struggled with not really having a farm. This property, where we now stand, is kind of interesting. It was a tree and shrub nursery that a visionary, wealthy man bought to protect. The development rights were sold to the state twenty years ago, meaning that it can only ever be used for farming. We can’t put a mini golf course here, can’t put a trampoline park. But any type of farming can occur here. That’s the deed restriction.
So, what are we looking at? These are Red Devons, domesticated 8,000 years ago in Southern England by paleolithic people at the beginning of the agricultural age. Their genetic code is intact from thousands of years ago. They’re wonderful, really calm animals. Why? Because they’ve been selected for centuries for just this. The classic oxen that pulled the cannons in the American revolution were Devons.
I’m trying to replicate the model of the giant ruminant herds that built the soil of this country and of Africa. Those animals that would take a bite, take a poop, stomp it in, move along, leave the pasture. When the Europeans first came to the Eastern Tall Grass Prairie, the topsoil was twenty-two feet thick. That was due to millennia of sixty-million bison, walking up and down, from Texas to North Dakota.
The challenge with doing it this way is to differentiate my meat from other meat – the $3.99 sirloins at Walmart. Those animals are fed a lot of grain quickly in feedlots. I raise grass-fed beef that’s 100% grass-fed. Now, you’re probably aware that that’s a term that people like to throw around – ‘grass-fed’. It’s seen as natural and humane and quality. Those are all true facts, but there used to be more requirements to use that term. Those requirements have been eased off due to industry pressure because a lot of people want to use that term. In 2014, the USDA said, “Look, you know what? We don’t want to be the bad cops anymore, so the term grass-fed will now be determined by the producer.” It’s almost like saying, “Oh, I’m pretty nice to my kids. I only beat them up if they need it.” So really, ‘grass-fed’ up until 2014 meant grass-fed and grass only. Just grass and hay, period. No storage grains. No seeds. Now the terms can be used more loosely. They can be used in a way that implies something that they didn’t exactly say but would love for you to infer. They would love for you to reach the conclusion that, “Oh, wow, this place serves grass-fed, that’s awesome! I love the grass-fed beef!” One particular law states they must be out on pasture during the “growing season” – meaning they could be fed grain in a feedlot six months a year and still be called ‘grass-fed beef’.
I’m making a real sacrifice on the production line by finishing on grass. It’s basically another year to get to market. And those older animals have a finish you can’t get elsewhere; you can see it in the yellow marbling, and you can taste it. Besides just the better-quality meat, the rotational grazing sequesters carbon and is environmentally sustainable. But you can’t learn any of that by just seeing the label ‘Grass-Fed’.
I’m trying to differentiate my beef so I can charge enough for it. Ninety-eight, ninety-nine percent of American beef is not finished this way. Less than two percent leaves the field and steps on a trailer to go to slaughter. I call it European style because these guys [indicating his cows] take three, even four years to finish. Most American beef is on the rail hanging at a butcher in eighteen to twenty months. I can sell four or five, six-year-old beef to the right customer, someone looking for that artisanal experience.
I never have enough beef of quality to call a distributor, and I’m not wealthy enough to have this just be a hobby. It needs to work as a business. It almost cost me my marriage; my wife thought it was a fool’s errand that didn’t resemble a job. I’ve really done it the hard way. I’ve touched and hand-delivered every pound of beef I’ve ever sold for eight years. Is it scalable? Not really. But what is scalable is my constellation. I’ve got four or five other farms I can call on, buy an animal from them, pay them real money.
The way it’s sustainable, both for me and the environment, is if I can sell the whole animal, including bones and tongues and tails and the braising cuts. For instance, the shank [indicating the nearest cow’s upper leg], this is a really nice stew cut right here, but it’s not a steak. You know I could probably find ten country clubs that want my top tender loins. They just want to rob my top prime. And that’s a big part of the math. The fancy top steaks in this animal, it’s only fifteen to twenty percent of the animal. So, sixty, eighty percent of it is not steak, not a ribeye, T-bone, strip steak or tender loin. Those are the money cuts, but they’re not the majority. There is also a huge amount of stew cuts, and some, what I call, artisanal cuts. I try to attract a community of chefs that will use the whole animal and even change how America eats.
Half of my day is selling beef. And a huge amount of the work is getting the meat from the butcher, storing it in my freezers, seeing who will buy it, and making deliveries. In the morning, I normally get on the computer and scratch my head and say, “All right, who can I sell to?” I need to be creative. I have one partnership with People Incorporated, a human service agency that runs thirty group homes and daycare centers in Fall River and Taunton. That area has socio-economic challenges. Those group homes typically eat a more processed, high carb, high starch diet, and they’re not very active, which means poor health outcomes. Cloverbud Ranch and People Inc. are partnering to improve high density nutrition in the group homes and give them access to local food. I’m giving them the best pricing I can; I take a haircut, take a beating on some of the cuts, but I gain some PR. Hopefully it will give me more market access to their professional population. And it speaks to that eternal question, “how do I put this in the hands of more people, and not have it just be in the hands of the swanky?”
I worked for eight years in corporate America. I learned many, many things, and they paid for my bachelor’s degree. But one day I was sitting in my cubicle, and I realized the whole world was happening, while I was stuck playing with paper and looking at a computer screen. So when I turned twenty-eight, I cashed in my retirement fund and moved to France to study French. And I loved it so much. The schooling was over after nine months but I thought, I have to stay in France ’cause I’m still not that fluent. I found a job on a farm.
In my adult life, I did eat vegetables, of course, but it was mostly canned and frozen vegetables. To have fresh food right off the farm, literally picked hours ago—it changed my whole view on eating. Everything that we harvested, and washed, and prepared, we ate. The farmer cooked all day, and we’d have an hour and a half to eat lunch, clean up, and take a nap, and then we’d go back into the field and work. When I came home to Rhode Island, I decided that I was going to get into farming. But my first try was a financial disaster. I just tried to do too much too soon.
Eventually, I found out about Southside Community Land Trust. Their mission is to help people grow food, so they have community gardens all around the city. It’s a collaborative where farmers pay fees and the land trust takes care of the property. For two to three thousand dollars a year (per acre) we have irrigation, tractors, deer fencing, storage, and wash areas. They also gave us business classes and growing classes, and they even created a whole network of local farmers. That’s how I started farming in Rhode Island the second time. Without the land trust, there would have been no way.
I’ve been farming for 14 years. Farming is very, very hard work. It takes a lot of backbreaking labor. People might have the conception of these thousand-acre farms that are monocropping and use a lot of machinery. The planting is mechanized, the harvest is mechanized. They use lots of pesticides. I have a small-scale farm, though, and we only have two part-time workers and two to three volunteers every year. And the weeds are crazy ’cause we don’t use chemicals. So the majority of people that I hire spend a lot of hours weeding, either with tools or with their bare hands.
Sometimes I have volunteers who would say, “Oh, well it’s raining today. I’m not coming.” Well, no. Whether it’s raining, or snowing, or whatever, we have to be in the field doing something. Weeding, planting, harvesting, washing. It’s just very labor-intensive, and not a lot of people can cut that. You could be in the same spot for hours, weeding carrots that have weeds the same size as the sprouted carrot top.
On a bad day, it’s like a hundred degrees, and it’s humid, and you have to get up early, because when it’s that humid, you want to harvest before it gets too hot. But you’re still sweating, and the dirt is sticking to you. Then, you know, a storm will come through and you’ll get drenched with rain, and then you have to dry off, and your hands get dirty, and your clothes get dirty. And you have to do it anyway—you have to pick the asparagus—but it’s not so much fun.
But on a great day, it’s sunny and 65 degrees, and all you have to do is go down a row, harvest beautiful sunflowers, put them in a bucket, and you take them into the cooler. Or, I have a row of asparagus, and you’re just going down the row, popping off the asparagus, eating it, ’cause you don’t even have to cook it. It’s that fresh and delicious.
Three years ago, my co-founder Eliza and I started Sanctuary Herbs in Providence. We’re an herbal tea company and vendor for Urban Greens, as well as a social mission company. Eliza decided to pursue other interests, so now my sisters and I manage the company. We have a threefold mission: support small farm viability with a focus on buying from refugee and immigrants farmers; maintain a low carbon footprint to help fight climate change; and provide the freshest product possible from “farm to cup” in weeks.
Throughout my history of farming at Urban Edge, an incubator farm managed by Southside Community Land Trust, I’d always been surrounded by immigrant farmers. But after the election of 2017, I was kind of afraid for our fellow farmers, because I didn’t know what was going to happen with the immigration laws. Since we were all farming together, I thought, why not work together? Why not help them know they have a crop that Sanctuary Herbs will buy from them? We can guarantee them income. We felt that that was a way to—not stop anti-immigrant sentiment—but you know, to say that we’re here to help everybody.
For example, there’s Chang and her husband Ger, and there’s also Choua and his wife Kia. They’re Hmong, and they immigrated from Laos. I learned about their history with the Vietnam War. Chang told me a story about her husband saying to her, “You have to get on the plane now we’re going to America.” And she’s like, “I don’t want to leave my country. I don’t want to go to America.” And he’s like, “You have to go, if we stay we’re going to be killed.”
Ninety-five percent of Sanctuary’s herbs are bought from farmers in Rhode Island. By supporting small-scale farmers, we hope that will cut down on the global footprint. Many herbs in this country come in from overseas. If I can create a network of local farmers to grow those herbs, then maybe we can help fight CO2 emissions.
There are some people who think the food should be cheaper at a farmer’s market, and it’s not. I mean, food is expensive. It’s medicine for your body. If you can change your mindset and move your budget around to spend more money on food, it might not feel like it’s such a burden. Still, there are some people who can’t afford a farmer’s market, and it’s unfortunate. But there are markets like Urban Greens that accept SNAP benefits and things like that, which is a start.
You know, there’s actually more farmer’s markets than ever in Rhode Island, due to organizations like Farm Fresh Rhode Island—a nonprofit aimed at helping make local foods more available and accessible—and people who are just taking the initiative to start farmer’s markets. Farm Fresh is building a food hub, which will eventually house a year-round, indoor farmer’s market, as well as their offices and other food- and farm-related small businesses. Still, we need to get more local food. By 2060, the Rhode Island Food Policy Council wants 50% of the food grown in New England to be consumed in the region. Right now, only 5% of the food that’s grown in Rhode Island is consumed in Rhode Island, something like that. It’s very little.
One herb that I know is really good for you is called holy basil or tulsi. It has anti-depressant and anti-inflammatory properties. It has a very unique flavor—it’s almost, like, fruity? It kind of smells like Fruit Loops a little bit.
And, oh! That’s the herb I was going to talk about—stinging nettle. It’s a weed on the farm, and it might grow wild in open pastures. It has little tiny hairs on the stem and leaves, and it has this type of acid. It will sting you if you touch it. It’s almost like you’re burning. If you ever fall into a patch of stinging nettle, just beware, because it lasts for about twenty minutes, and you’ll feel yourself tingling later in the day. But, if we cook and dry it, it will take the sting away. It’s very high in iron and it’s like a multivitamin. So we harvest it, and we dry it—with gloves, obviously—and it’s an amazing herb.
All this just comes from the earth.
I always say this, I think everybody should volunteer on a farm at least once. ’Cause then they can see how fun—and difficult—it is. It’s funny. Sometimes elementary or even high school kids will come to the farm, and there’s a whole huge reaction from them, like, “Oh my God!” screaming, “I don’t want to get dirty!” to “Look at that bug!” to “Oh my God, let me lift this rock!” ’cause, you know, they’re excited to help you move the rock. It’s not for everybody, but everybody should experience it.
For me, I guess the biggest reason that I continue farming is because I love to see things grow. You put a seed in the ground, and hopefully you get rid of the weeds, and hopefully your soil is healthy, and the next day you come back and the asparagus grew a foot, or there’s beautiful flowers. I think it’s magic.
Every part of farming is rewarding to me. Even when I’m sweating ‘cause I have to bring back like twelve buckets of water to my animals, it just reminds me why I do it. I love being able to be with my animals and seeing every part of their lives. I breed them, I get to deliver their babies, and I get to milk them. It’s really cool to see the whole life cycle of an animal. You don’t have to help goats give birth, they can do it on their own, but I prefer to be there for them. It’s just like women can give birth on their own, but when a doctor is there it’s a lot easier.
There’s a bubble of amniotic fluid that comes up first. When you see that bubble you have to stick your hands in and make sure the goat’s in the right position. It’s not like you need to flip the goat or anything like that. It’s more making sure it’s right side up cause the goat has to come out with its two front hooves and it’s nose sticking out. And if they don’t, it’s just a lot harder and sometimes they can break their neck. So I like to go in and make sure the goat’s in the right position. As soon as the goat starts contracting and pushing, I like to pull with every push and that way they can get the goat out within like two pushes rather than twenty.
I got my first dairy goat for my seventh birthday. I fell in love with it right away, so people kept on giving goats to me. By the time I was nine, I had fifteen goats and I was getting roughly fifteen gallons of milk a day that I had no idea what to do with. I started researching what you could do with goat milk––Google is my best friend––and I found goat milk soap. I learned how to make soap off of YouTube. I watched a million videos and then did trial and error. That’s kinda how I’m learning how to make all of my products. I get a base knowledge of how you’re supposed to do it and then I put my own twist on the process.
I started making soap at nine years old and giving it away as gifts to my teachers at my elementary school. People started saying that it was really helping them with their eczema, their rosacea, their acne, different things like that, and they wanted to buy it off of me. I researched it a lot more and got my recipe together. I started using organic oils and selling at the local farmer’s market. It just took off. Since then I’ve been on the Steve Harvey Show, the roadshow. I’ve been in magazines and stuff. It’s just really has gone way farther than I thought it was going to at the start.
My days are very busy, I really only stop to eat. I wake up around 6:30 in the morning and I go take care of the farm that’s on the same property as my facility to make soap. I go and I milk all of my goats and I take care of the rest of the animals. When I have baby goats, I have to feed them every two hours for the first two weeks of their lives, so there’s a lot of breaks in between feeding them. Usually, I make soap and I’ll do orders and stock up on inventory until I have to take care of the animals again, which is usually around 6:00 pm. Then I go to night classes at CCRI [Community College of Rhode Island] from 7:00 to 9:30. I’m currently in my first year of college for business marketing and I’m looking to stay in ‘till I get my master’s degree.
I think it’s shaped everything about me. Since I was nine years old my whole life has been the farm and the business. I gave up a lot of “normal teenage things,” like going to high school, going to dances, proms, partying––all of that––for my business. I graduated a year early from high school because I’ve been homeschooled since sixth grade and I did two years in one for my last year of high school. And I honestly wouldn’t have it any other way. I chose to do all of that stuff for a reason; I’m very passionate about what I do. Since I started the business, my family asks me constantly, “are you sure you still want to do this?” They are adamant that I can change what I want to do at any point in my life. I just happened to find my passion at a young age and I never want to let go of it. I maybe grew up a little faster than most of my peers because I had to learn how to publicly speak and talk to people who are a lot older than me. But it’s how I grew into the person I am today.
I also give a lot of props to my parents for that, because they gave us all a certain level of responsibility for our lives. I have seven siblings and we all live in the same house. Most of my family works together, so they help me out on the farm. My dad built the building we’re in right now for my soap studio. My brothers work construction with my dad, and my sister and mom work with me. Business is business, but we never bring it back home. We have a very interesting family dynamic because although there are many of us, we get along really well and we never get sick of each other.
People kind of blow over the fact that my family has always been so supportive of me and try to make it seem like I did it all myself, but I really didn’t. I was only nine years old when I started. I couldn’t have done it by myself. I did a lot of it by myself; I went into the stores trying to sell it; I went to the farmer’s markets. But without the support of my family, without people driving me to those things, without my community supporting me and buying it from the beginning … it wouldn’t have happened.
I live in North Scituate, Rhode Island. Everybody knows everybody, but I love it here. I love the sense of family. In 2014 I really learned how much the community sticks together. We had an incident where our barn burned down with fifty of our animals in it. We only had four goats left in a different barn that we had just built. When that happened, the community got together. They made fundraisers for us. People were dropping off dinner every night of the week. That’s when I learned how much the community actually cared about each family in it. People really got together to help us out, donating animals and materials to build a new barn. It’s definitely a wonderful community that we ended up in.
I know a lot of my local customers. Anybody from Rhode Island that has bought soap from me, I’ve met at one point or another because they’ve come to visit me at a farmer’s market or they’ve come to see the farm or something. I love to go and talk to people. I’ve made good relationships with a lot of my customers, who I consider like family or friends and not just “customers.” I always feel weird about calling people customers. They’re people, they’re not just… They buy my product, but I see them as more than that because I have actual conversations with them every week. I know their families, I know their animals.
Julius Kolawole, President of the African Alliance, talks urban gardening and Urban Greens
A retired engineer and professor, Julius Kolawole founded the African Alliance of Rhode Island with some friends in 2004 with one goal in mind: “An African immigrant should be able to come to Rhode Island, make one phone call, and find home.” With a focus on access to public health services, the Alliance provides a variety of resources to refugees and immigrants, including a robust urban gardening network. In a late-night cafe in downtown Providence, Julius shares his origin story:
All of us lived a village life. This is how the garden began.
I am from Nigeria, but we come from Ghana, from Zimbabwe, from everywhere. Many of us grew up in a small town, maybe a village, and we are good at growing things. [Coming to] this country presents quite a lot of challenges. Many of them don’t speak much of English. So I thought, if we create a garden, these women who are locked up in their apartments, they can meet in the evening. I know fully well, loneliness can lead to depression and a whole lot of other problems. But to feel useful––instead of talking to your wall, you talk to some friends and get out of your house… it’s a sort of therapy.
So yes, we farm. We grow. This is who we are, this is how we all grew up. Fresh vegetables.
Today as I speak to you, here is where we are: We have six community gardens. In those six community gardens, I have eight people who grow their own food to feed their family and store fresh vegetables for winter time. Then we partnered with Providence Housing Authority to open a garden at Chad Brown, a Section 8 housing community. There we have nine women. This year will be our fourth year. Grow your own food. Last year we began another one, Hartford House, that’s another Section 8 housing project, where eleven Latinas grow their own food.
In 2012, I took some of these women to the farmers market off Cranston Street. If you come ninety minutes late to that market, whatever they brought is sold out. Just gone. Because of that they’ve been able to make friends in the market. People don’t look at them like they are some aliens, judging the way they dress, the way they walk and so on. Coupled with that, they make some money and they feed their family. For me, that’s what our values are. When you’re able to feed your family, the dad feels happy, the mom feels happy, the kids feel happy. But if you all go to bed hungry, in the morning it’s not a good day.
What is your relationship to Urban Greens?
I don’t know if you’re familiar with Providence, but if you go from Broadway to Cranston Street, Cranston Street all the way to Elmwood, Elmwood to Broad Street to Allen… You can scope around and ask, “Where is a grocery store?”
I look at Urban Greens as a renewal, a new leaf, something good for us. You know where the food bank is on Niantic, in Providence? Used to be a grocery store. Now they’re gone. There’s another one on the other side, Adelaide, off Elmwood Avenue. Used to be Stop & Shop. Gone. So when you look at the general environment, there are no commercial grocery stores. Bodegas and liquor stores, that’s all. We need pick-me-up things in the community, and I see Urban Greens from that point of view. They are good for our community and I support them because the community is what matters.
Many who look like me have been trying to tag Urban Greens as a Whole Foods. Know what that means? It’s not for us. They talk about the price, they talk about this, they talk about that, and so on. But we need new things in the community, and Urban Greens is one of them. Where Urban Greens is today used to be a dry-cleaning building full of contamination and a whole lot of other chemicals. Today, it’s a reference. “Meet me at Urban Greens.” That’s a reference. That’s a renewal. Let us welcome it.
What is your happiest memory of the garden?
In 2010, the executive director of West Elmwood Housing allowed us to use an empty lot for the first garden we had. A new garden needs cleaning and things like that. We chose a Saturday to do that. There were, I think, ten or twelve women present. We were cleaning, we built raised beds, we put soil in, and we put seedlings in it. I call for a pizza, must be about 2 p.m. or 2:30, and the women started to dance. It was emotional for me. Because they were damn so happy, they broke out and started to dance. That’s one of the memories I hold onto.
There is another, a young lady who has been sick. We gave her a small space to grow things, and she wrote to us how delighted, how happy she has been. Because she now has a place to go, things to do, and with the vegetables––because they’re fresh and she grows all of them–– well, that helped her health issues.
I’ll give you one last one, a woman who talked about what gardening, selling, and farming have done for her. “My grandchildren think grandma is good now,” she said. “Before that, they think grandma is useless. Because she has no money.”
That’s why I do what I do. I think about them and say to myself, Okay. All right. Get up. [laughing] Get up.
Yo soy Ana Maria. Yo soy Colombiana y viné a los Estados Unidos como una inmigrante. Yo estoy muy orgullosa que tengo un negocio en Rhode Island que ayuda las comunidades minitorias. A cuidar al medioambiente, mi negocio se trata de uno venir con sus propios envases y regenerar sus productos. Cuando uno hace esto uno salva dinero, uno salva el medioambiente y uno también usa productos que son buenos para su cuerpo y productos que no le van hacer daño en el futuro.
I was working at a school in Huntington Park in Los Angeles when I realized we were breathing in hot-dog fumes. I’d play outside with the kids and we could smell the smoke. We could literally see the air pollution. There were so many factories in the town next to us, we were just surrounded by factories. I think the factory closest to us happened to make hot dogs.
This is crazy. It’s crazy we have communities living under these conditions, inhaling toxic fumes. Environmental racism became so clear to me when I was working in LA. I’d go to my job in Watts or to my house in South Central, and then I’d hang out in North Hollywood on the weekends, and you could just see it. It was impossible not to. There was so much pollution in the inner-city versus more privileged communities.
That was when I knew I wanted to do something different, to educate people. I wanted people to know about the environmental racism aspect of climate change, how it disproportionately affects low-income families and people-of-color. I wanted to educate people beyond the scope of living a zero-waste lifestyle, which on platforms like Instagram can seem like something only attainable for people with privilege: white people with the time and money to make the environment a priority.
So, I got myself a platform, I made an Instagram account. Green Tenderfoot was born.
People always ask me why I chose the name Green Tenderfoot. A lot of people think it’s weird, but I just love it. To be “tenderfoot” is to be a newbie or to start something new, and that’s what I was at first, that’s what I did. I had just started learning about environmental racism and zero-waste lifestyles, and while I was learning, I was educating at the same time.
I didn’t have any experience with environmental activism or social justice growing up. I went to college at University of Rhode Island, I studied kinesiology, and got a job as a physical education teacher in Providence. I ended up applying for this program called City Year. It’s a non-profit that puts people to work in elementary, middle, and high schools in low-income communities. I was placed in Los Angeles and it was the first time I was so completely out of my comfort zone. I had never taken a step like this before, just packing everything up and moving to LA. I literally found my roommates on Facebook, which is crazy, I know.
I got placed in a high school in Watts. About once a month on Fridays we’d have community meetings, where we’d all come together and discuss social justice issues. Before, I wasn’t really familiar with the lingo. I never took any social justice classes in college. I studied kinesiology, you know what I mean? Learning about environmental racism is what made me want to recycle more and become involved with environmental activism.
So I made it a point to recycle a lot more, and soon after I watched a documentary on Netflix called The Plastic Ocean. It was insane. I knew I needed to do a lot more than just recycle. Following people on social media is how I became more involved with social justice after City Year, which is pretty awesome. It was also around this time that I started working at Huntington Park and created the Green Tenderfoot Instagram page, an account to hold myself accountable, to document my journey, and to educate others.
When I started my Instagram platform, I noticed that everyone followed the same people, everyone looked the same, everything was aesthetic all the time. Everything was freaking expensive. This does not serve everyone. It serves the people with time and resources and money. It became another motivation for me to create my own Instagram account. I wanted to be environmentally conscious, but in a way that I think others can actually replicate. I wanted to say that if I could do it, then you could do it too. You could do it and not go insane.
I started making my own products—my own toothpaste, my own lotion, my deodorant. Girl, you can do anything with Google and YouTube. Everything is online. I basically started my business through Google University (laughs).
I started making my own things because in LA there was a bulk store that sold things like xylitol, baking soda, shea butter, coconut oil, all of these things in huge containers. And I’d mix the shea butter and the coconut oil and I’d make a body cream.
In all honesty, though, the toothpaste sucked. I used to cry every time I brushed my teeth. My god, it was so disgusting. The deodorant, though, was a hit. It worked so well for me. And then my partner started using it too. He was the one who first said, ‘Why don’t you sell this? You already have your platform.’ And I thought that was actually a really great idea. It was something I could actually do.
When I visited Rhode Island in December to see my family, I made a post on my personal Instagram page letting people know that I was selling deodorants and all of my friends wanted to buy some. Everyone came up to me and had so many questions. I realized that I was able to educate people by selling things too.
When I came back to Rhode Island, I noticed there was a lack of bulk stores. In LA they were everywhere and they were accessible to a lot of people. They were so cheap. And you’d see everyone at these stores, people-of-color, white people, every kind of person you could think of would be there. And people would still use plastic bags while they were there, because they typically weren’t conscious of the environmental impact, but knew they could save money. I also figured that a physical refill station would also be the best way to go about selling the products, since the whole point is to keep reusing your containers and decrease your carbon footprint. When I moved back home, I knew that I wanted to start a refill station in Rhode Island. As a person who grew up in a low-income community in Rhode Island, in Pawtucket, as a person-of-color, I felt like I’d have more influence to start a refill-station with marginalized communities in mind, versus if someone else were to start it. Specifically if that someone isn’t from Rhode Island and is coming in to gentrify these communities, or is a person of privilege who wouldn’t relate to the people that live in these neighborhoods.
Connecting with marginalized people is so important to me, especially as a person-of-color, especially as an immigrant. With people-of-color, our voices tend not to be heard. One time I was featured on the news in Pawtucket and they did a whole segment on my business. Everyone at the news organization assumed that I was born here. They introduced me as a Pawtucket native and I didn’t want to interrupt the interview because it was live. But in my head I was like ‘But I’m not a native!’ I was not born here. I’m an immigrant! I was not born in the United States. I was born in Colombia and I moved to Rhode Island when I was seven years old. And I want people to know that. I want to be proud to say that.
So that’s how the Green Tenderfoot refill station was born. And people are always talking about my market. Like how I should sell to people with a lot of money, to people that care about the environment. And to be honest, we often talk about how the people with time to care about the environment tend to be a little bit wealthier. And while I would love for those people to buy from me, I wanted to specifically target the people that I know: people-of-color, people who live in marginalized communities that are truly not aware of the things that go on or in their bodies. I want to help educate them about the environment. Maybe they don’t have time to watch a documentary, or pay close attention to the news to understand why there’s going to be a plastic ban. This could be something that I do.
My first pop-up was in Pawtucket and it was so beautiful. It was just amazing. A lot of the people who showed up were from the community. I had a little educational board with ways to love the planet on it. And there was a pledge—they had to write one thing they were going to do to care more for the planet.
The first step was getting a license saying that I’m allowed to buy things at whole-sale price. Then I started to reach out to companies that I think are ethical, that have no harsh chemicals in their ingredients, that are family-owned or woman-owned. After I find a company that I’d want to potentially work with, I usually reach out and ask if they sell items in bulk. Can you sell it to me in one gallon? In five gallons? Can you sell it to me in fifty-five gallons? A lot of times the answer is no. You just gotta hustle.
For each station, I have to move everything from my basement to my car. It’s a lot of heavy lifting. Some of my friends help me, my mom’s husband’s dad helps me. After loading everything in the car we go to the location and set up. Typically people come in and are just curious. I usually explain to them that this is a refill station and we’re tying to help people eliminate single-use plastic. You come in with your container, either one that you already own or you can purchase one from us, and then you pick the product that you want.
The transition from Instagram to a refill station also made me realize that while social media is powerful, nothing beats in-person, human-to-human interactions. It’s when you make that real life connection that it becomes a human connection. Everyone needs that. Like my mom works for Central Falls Housing Authority and she recommended that I bring my refill station there. And a lot of people came up to me and commented that my products look really expensive. And part of that is because I do sell some zero-waste lifestyle items that are a luxury. I don’t think you need bamboo utensils to be zero-waste. I say this all the time. Use what you already have. And so when these people came up to me, I told them they didn’t need any of it. What I actually want you to see is all the items in bulk. And people usually get confused by the price. Like forty-cents per ounce, how does that work, and everything. After I explain to people how they’re saving money by buying in bulk, they’re usually more on board with the idea. And we have this idea that low-income identifying people are not going to want to purchase items at a refill station because they’re for people who are more invested in the environment, for folks that have more financial resources. And I’ve had that conversation many times, both in English and in Spanish. A lot of the people that come to my refill stations are Hispanic.
And I’m not saying that refill stations should be around forever, because there’s so many innovative people in this world, and I really hope that there’ll be an alternative to plastic in the future. And I know that there’s things like that in the works now. But in the meantime, we still have to do something about our plastic consumption. I know we’re waiting for policy change, but if we wait forever without ever first creating the demand for change, then it’ll never happen. I think for now, these stations are a step in the right direction.
My first job was working in a supermarket as a cleanup kid for a chain that’s no longer around called First National. That was back in Plymouth, Massachusetts. It was the only nonunion job in the store, but it gave me an opportunity to really learn all about supermarket operations from the ground up. I mean I literally cleaned every aisle.
Eventually, I determined that I was going to become a meat cutter. Cutters were always the best paid in the store, and they also had power because they were very unified. You had the grocery union, the food workers union, and then you had the meat cutters. That was the powerhouse. So, I wanted to be part of that group, and I also liked the physical component of the work.
When I would tell my friends that I was a meat cutter, they would ask, how can you stand at that bench all day and just slice meat? How does your brain tolerate such a thing? And I said, you don’t understand that I take something that people find repulsive, a chunk of bloody flesh, and with my skill, I can create something that you will spend a lot of money for and that you really want. It’s literally that. And it’s one of the last trades that exists. There used to be a lot of tradespeople that made shoes, they made bread, there was the whole candlestick maker thing, right? But now, the need for those special skills, those craftsmen, for the most part it’s gone. That is with the exception of meat cutting and baking, those are the last two holdouts that you’ll still find in grocery stores.
Over time, I started working for Bread and Circus, and they eventually became what we call Whole Foods today. You know the Whole Foods down on Columbus Circle in New York City? I hired all of our three hundred employees when that store opened. I’ve traveled the world on food. I’ve been to Italy, France, Germany, England, all on food, The Bahamas. I’ve been there too, thanks to my job. So, it’s been a great journey. And I think of Urban Greens, my position as the store manager here, well, it just might be my final position I take because it really pulls upon all the different skills I have had to develop along the way.
I mean if you look at the traditional co-op model, and the stereotypes around it, you have this idea of the store’s customers being wealthy and white; people who have the time and the money to be discerning about things like how the meat was raised and the conditions in which the produce grew. And the store, Urban Greens, this location here on the West end of Providence, is right at the edge of a food desert. Which means that if we are committed to servicing this community we also have to be price sensitive, we have to have the products and brands that they want.
You know, it’s a fairly deep discussion to talk about how the food that you eat on a daily basis shapes the relationships that you have with everyone around you. Everyone has foods they like, what they think are good, right? What we don’t realize is how much food defines us as individuals. And then on a larger scale how those food preferences define a community. When you look at what somebody’s eating, you start to make assessments of whether they’re wealthy or they’re poor. I had macaroni and cheese last night. Well, what does that mean? Does that mean this person doesn’t have a lot of money or time? I had shrimp last night. Does that mean I’m rich? I made a cake from scratch. That says that person cares about food, right? So, the food we eat is loaded with many connotations, things we think it says about who the individuals are that are coming to the table. At the end of the day we all come from different backgrounds with different values baked in.
For example, my wife is Colombian, she freaked out when I showed her brown bread in a can. I was born on Guam, but grew up in New England with a French-Canadian mom. And brown bread in a can, that’s what we ate. While my wife, she grew up on arepas [corn-flower pancakes]. She taught me that for the Latino community you don’t just buy any corn flour you buy PAN-branded flour. You buy Tylenol not the off-brand stuff cause it might be junk. Brand is one of the ways folks in this community make decisions around what to buy. It is more important than how the corn was grown because, you have to remember, this community comes from countries where pesticides aren’t part of the process. That’s just not on their radar in the first place.
When I spoke to my wife about taking this job, she said, “honey, you know, my parents are never going to shop in this store.” Because for them, they can’t justify spending the money for some of these items. So, I have to take that into consideration. A key part of how we operate here is our sensitivity to the ingredients that are in the foods we stock. We want to ensure that what we sell is wholesome. And at the same time, we have to balance that with price sensitivity and brand awareness.
We are trying to invite people into the store. We have plantains four for a dollar. And yucca. And Pan Sabao Pan de Agua. We buy the dough, it comes from Puerto Rico and we thaw it out and we bake it here. It’s even in the same bag as in San Juan. I hate to say if you build it they will come. But if you build it and you have the door open––and that is the biggest challenge, having the door in a place that’s visible so that others can see that it is open—if you do that you might just get some new people to the table.
So where my wife’s generation who might be looking at, you know, brand, price and also cleaner products, no GMOs, those kinds of concerns. The next generation is looking to things like long term environmental impacts with the zero-waste movement. So that’s another entry point. I mean, the younger generation is often speaking in the same voice, regardless of ethnicity or gender, because for them, it’s a matter of survival. It’s about climate. This market, what Urban Greens is doing is really important because this is the future of co-ops. Co-ops are not going to be relegated to the suburbs in, you know, some hippie area of the state. We are trying to prove that is possible that they can be in the middle of the city and service all the surrounding communities. I take pride in that.
Compiled by: Elizabeth Rush