Gardening with Ariel & JesS
We are excited to introduce Ariel & Jess, and their community initiative, Palenke Greens. We spent a lovely afternoon in their garden, talking about the complex nature of food, food insecurity, and burlap sack gardening. We hope you enjoy reading about the inspiration behind Palenke Greens, and learning about Ariel & Jess.
Please start by telling us a bit about yourself.
Jess: I am a Can-Aussie, Canadian-Australian, grew up half and half, here and there. I am an archeologist and anthropologist by trade, and I have worked with a lot of First Nations communities all over BC. That really sparked my interest and passion for learning about ancestral practices, and traditional medicines, and the native plants around here and their amazing powers, and our relation with those plants as well. That really sparked a huge component of Iyé Creative, which is trying to get back to those ancestral practices from the African West Coast, but we also really got back to that in Cuba as well when we were living there and analyzing our histories.
Ariel: I am from Santiago de Cuba, Cuba, which is the Blackest city in the country. I am an engineer by trade. Back in Cuba I used to be involved in project and event coordination, I was teaching at the University of Information Science in Havana. From my dad’s side, I’m Bantu, which is in Central Africa, and went all the way down to South Africa, and all the way to the East. Bantu is one of the most spoken languages in ancestral Africa, pre-colonization. On my mom’s side, I am Yoruba; at least that is what we think. I moved to Canada three years ago, and started working at the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society, as a multi-cultural events coordinator. Working with these diverse and marginalized communities gave me the perspective that we have to switch the approach of the single story. All these communities keep alive their ancestral knowledge and the different ways of knowing and being. It gave me the perspective that there is so much that we have to keep learning. Marrying Jess, and working with Indigenous communities have been able to provide for our couple-hood that sense of diversity, and how every single voice has to be included at the table, so that we have different ways to see life, but then we have a shared goal where we put everything in that axis.
Please tell us about Palenke Greens.
Ariel: During COVID, all of the disparities in our society were unveiled because previously, we were super entertained. They want us to be busy so you can’t focus, and when you don’t focus, you tend to forget. During that time we started really thinking about that, and thought, “wow, how important is food?” Jess has different food constraints, and she has a very particular way to eat. We saw how systemic racism impacts the food system, and our relationship to food, and our relationship to land. Palenke Greens is for us, a way to show respect to our ancestors. Palenke is a settlement that enslaved Africans, when they became Maroons, settled after they escaped the plantations. They created these mutual aid settlements, and they used agriculture as a way to keep connected to the land. But, the interesting thing that we didn’t know is that local Indigenous communities supported all of these enslaved Africans to understand the land and how to handle themselves on a land that they didn’t know. This made us think about how our Indigeneity is connected to global Indigeneity. All of these Indigenous communities, and we are talking about Indigenous people from Africa, Indigenous people from all around the globe, they have the same concept of the land as an entity. It is an entity that is alive, and if you are not in a reciprocal relationship with that entity, you are out of balance. If you are not in balance with your spirit, if you are not in balance with your body, you are out of balance. The knowledge that we have about nutrition, food, and how people approach food, helped us create this.
Jess: Also, we realized that all of the food security initiatives in town never cater to the Black, Indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC) community, or are so inaccessible. There are so many barriers that it just isn’t feasible. So, we understood that if we wanted to do something, it had to be that everything was paid for, and people just had to open up their house and we will even come set it up. There is absolutely no barrier.
Ariel: The other thing, with all of these Black Lives Matter (BLM) movements, we (Black people) are at the bottom of society. Black and Indigenous folks, we are in the bottom of a society that intentionally shaped the system in a way that we don’t belong. We don’t belong to the system. So, now, we have people in the street protesting, but then I thought, “Ok, we protested, but when we came back from the protest, we go to Walmart.” The food industry is a huge complex, and if you are saying that Black Lives Matter, but then when you go back home, you go to Walmart, and you start buying things that we don’t even know where they come from. So, there is not a balance there.
Canada is too nice, which makes it very hard to define the variables that have that impact within our food system. As Jess said, the food security initiatives in town, they are 80% led by and for white people. We need to recognize that our ancestors were farmers, and we need to bring back that ancestral knowledge. West Africans have used the burlap sack as a vertical gardening tool for a long period of time, and we didn’t know that.
We met our friend MP from Vancouver and she coordinates a food security initiative in Kenya, and Uganda. She started talking about this, and we thought it was an amazing idea, and wanted to contribute to our community. The cost, just in materials for the Palenke Greens sack, is about $55 to $60, but we install it in all of these households at no cost.
Palenke Greens is supporting and holding a space for people of African descent facing food insecurity, people that are feeling motivated to go back to land based practices, people that would like to know more about gardening, people that would like to understand more how urban farming works, because you have to be very creative. The other background that is very important is thinking about Cuba in the ‘90’s. We went through a crisis and we didn’t have anything to eat. People started to plant in their own house, and use unusual things to plant, and I remember people doing so many different things in order to eat. I think I was remembering that during COVID, and it was a motivator to do this.
Jess: For context, we had always strayed away from gardening because we thought it was such a perfectionist thing, something you had to put money into etc. But then we thought, actually, you can use anything. A lot of our planters we found in the street. Once we realized that, it totally changed our perspective, and we were way more eager to do it.
Ariel: We have been working with Metchosin Farm, they have been supporting us a lot. Growing Together, an initiative from the city of Victoria, provided the seedlings. Roasteries in town have been supporting us by giving us the burlap sacks. It’s just that community spirit. We have to keep that alive, because everyone is going back to a new normal, and we tend to forget. Humans tend to forget, and that is why we are just pushing whenever we have an opportunity to talk about this, or talk to the youth. They are the people that will keep this resilience alive. We are just planting the seed.
What inspired you to create this initiative?
Ariel: Holding a space for people of African descent. People that for millennia have been oppressed, because not only Black people have been in this situation, everyone that thinks in a different way, has a different idea, or a different way to see the world, have been oppressed since colonialism started. So, for us, it is just showing people that we are able to change the story if we work together as a group.
Jess: A means of survival for all of these oppressed populations for millennia has been disconnecting from the land. Now, we need to reconnect with the land because that is where you will find your balance and solutions. We see it a lot. So, we are doing what we can in our community to try and create that change.
Ariel: One concept that I am trying to develop is the concept of communal abundance. What is good for one has to be good for all, if not, it is not good at all. That’s Ubuntu spirit, which is a framework that was created in South Africa. We have to rethink the way we engage with each other, and how we can thrive together. We didn’t come to this land (ie. this planet) to suffer. That is something that has been created by power dynamics, but we can give back that power dynamic to the people. How can we create a community that shares abundance? Since we started doing this, so many people are talking about it in the city, and we have to start thinking communally. How can we create abundance? We have to be able to create at least 3 times what we need, that is the only way. Coming from the non-profit sector, I learned that we just give. We need to give people the tools of their own liberation because we can’t give, give, give, because we create a dependent relationship.
Jess: Honestly, the real reason why we really started gardening is amongst all the COVID sense of panic, we realized that we are on an island and if anything did happen, we have to have some kind of security ourselves. At the end of the day, if one truck doesn’t come in there is not going to be food available. It got us thinking and motivated.
Ariel: The island has a back-up plan of four days, I’ve heard. That is super scary, and that is why food in Victoria is super expensive.
Jess: You want to support locals, and go to the local markets and get all farm fresh produce, but it is expensive. You can’t do it if you are a vulnerable population, because it is literally not possible.
Ariel: That is another reason that we wanted to create Palenke Greens. Different reasons have been leading us. We are just trying to create that spark in people’s minds, and make them think that if we can do it, they can do it.
Jess: We just want to create awareness for those that don’t have awareness already, and start a movement.
You have discussed the connection between racial injustice and food insecurity. How does Palenke Greens help address this, and what roles do you think gardening plays in addressing these issues?
Ariel: Gardening is liberation. I didn’t know that, and I can tell you that when I started doing this, I didn’t want to go back to do anything else. The only thing you can do in the garden is just 1) set the intention, 2) focus your attention, and 3) create no tension. Those are the pillars of abundance. The garden is just a reciprocal relationship, and you create no expectation. Going back to the food system, food sovereignty and food apartheid, we are talking about the land, and access to the land. People from different cultural backgrounds, I’m focusing on Black people, we were working the land for a long period of time, but now our hands are empty, in a way. People in power have been creating different policies that have been removing people from the land. You can see the old Indigenous food systems have been destroyed by colonization. Now, you see the diet related disease, like diabetes, or hypertension, because people have been removed and don’t know what to do, and they are just buying foods that are not culturally appropriate, and then people are getting sick. So, we are talking about the concept of food apartheid, which is when people are left out of the system because they don’t have access to high quality food that is culturally appropriate where many variables are involved. That’s the intersectionality between food, housing, health and community.
Jess: Another key thing with this initiative is that we really tried to prioritize people of African descent first, because that never happens in this town. The other thing to really think about as well is that it was so hard for us to get people involved because there is such a trauma around gardening. There is an intergenerational trauma, where gardening is seen as a form of slavery, and as a sign of being poor, and that it isn’t about being connected to the land or being sovereign in that way.
Ariel: Also, there was the sharecropping system in the States, where millions of the Black farmers lost their lands. And then, when you go back to the motherland, there is Monsanto and the international agriculture businesses that are poisoning the land and poisoning the seeds. If you don’t have a craft seed movement, you can forget the future.
We have 60 years left of farmable land, so our grandchildren, even our children, are going to face a very different reality. Colonialism has been killing our planet because, in general, the practices have been removing people from the land, and that is the biggest mistake humans have made, thinking we are on top of the ecosystem.
We need to start having those conversations. As I told you, land access, people getting removed from the land, and food apartheid are the concepts that we have to start getting into. The only way we can start changing policies is for everyone to go back to the land. We can say whatever we want, but we have to go back to the land. We are not in touch; we are in a concrete jungle. It is a crazy relationship that we have to keep studying, because it is complex, it is not easy. We are still learning.
Which plants grow best in a burlap sack?
Jess: There are a lot of companion planting that works very well. The key clincher is who has what sun exposure. But nasturtiums do un-freaking well in the sack. Any kind of green – kale, chard, cabbage, broccoli, tomatoes are ok if they are on the top, or squashes, like zucchini. We have people fill out a form about space and sun-exposure, and that is what determines what plants people get.
How do you envision Palenke Greens growing and changing in the future?
Ariel: The future plan is to provide people with 1 tuber sack (potatoes, sweet potato), 1 sack with greens and 1 sack for medicinal herbs. Then the household will be complete. Then we want to have a harvest celebration where people are going to talk about what worked and what didn’t, which will give us feedback.
Jess: We have a couple ideas about tiers. We are applying for a couple of grants currently. One idea is to have a second round of plant distribution for the winter with winter crops. We are talking about getting some sort of mini greenhouse set up, so it’s possible to grow during the winter. Aside from that, we would like to upscale away from the sacks and use growing racks and growing lights, and doing things like microgreens. This would allow people to have 24 hour greens, and they are highly nutritious. We have a million avenues.
Ariel: Training and mentoring the youth. Getting community centres, and schools involved. We need a food revolution in the city.
Jess: Safe food as well. Part of the mentoring stuff, we want to talk about food preservation.
Ariel: From seed to preservation!
Jess: This generation has no friggin’ clue. It’s part of the intergenerational knowledge gap.
Are there organizations/ people/ companies in Victoria or abroad that are focusing on food security who inspire you?
- Soul Fire Farm in New York. It is a completely Brown and Black led farm. The co-founder, Leah Penniman, has many talks on social media.
- Refarmers in Vancouver
- CRFAIR with the Growing Together initiative
- CSA (community supported agriculture)- community farm boxes. Co-opt concept. Organic food.
What does the phrase, “food as medicine,” mean to you?
Jess: We identify with that. Reflecting on my personal journey with my health and food, food was literally the solution. A lot of it was my problem as well. After eliminating certain things and going through cleanses, the fact that I was able to change my body and my situation was pretty unreal. And the fact that my health is still so good up to this date because I maintain that with food is pretty incredible.
Ariel: That is a complex question. What is a medicine? And where did that medicine come from? It came from the land. Everything in this life, is about your relationship to the land and your relationship to other living beings. We eat what the land is able to give us. We are part of the land. We think we are a separated entity of the land, and that’s why we are in trouble now. You find everything you need in this life in the land, and you don’t pay anything for that.
What food do you think is most underrated?
Jess: In this particular context, in Victoria, a lot of international foods are overlooked. Most people here don’t know what they are or how they are cooked.
Ariel: Cassava. Ocra. Stuff you can’t grow here. Sunchoke. People don’t know about those. It’s a North American native plant, I guess, and I would like to learn more about it.
Are there cookbooks or books about food you are currently enamoured with and/or often revisit? What are they, and why do you love them
Our food, our cuisine is that marriage point between what she knows and what I know from our respective cultures, and we invent crazy things. Our most famous creation is the cassava crackers and west cassava pizza.
What is your earliest food memory?
Ariel: I remember in Cuba a cereal– oats, which used to come from the Soviet Union – with milk powder and we used to put some chocolate in as well. I remember that, and I used to LOVE it.
What is your fondest food memory?
Jess: Thinking about being in awe of food, I remember being in field school in Santiago, and seeing the full pig on the spit and being like “Ahhhhh” but then eating it, and being like, “Oh my god”. It was unreal. And that was the first time I ever ate pig skin, and I was like: “that’s disgusting”. No, it’s the fucking best. I ate so much.
That or his parents would always save me cold mangoes in the fridge.
Do you have a food goal or cooking aspiration?
Ariel: The goal is always to find the savoury and the sweet, and to keep the balance.
When you cook, you are ________.
Who would you most want in your kitchen? Are they cooking for you, are you cooking together, or are you cooking for them?
Jess: I want to be cooked for. We do a lot of cooking, which I love, but I also love being cooked for in turn – if someone can actually cook for me, which is always the clincher, because most people can’t.
Ariel: I love cooking for people. My daughter.
What is your staple dish for a potluck?
Brownies and Fufu (mashed plantain and cassava, dressing with parsley, garlic, allspice, lemon and olive oil).
What is your comfort food?
Jess: Sushi and pho
What do you feel like eating for dinner tonight?
Someone is cooking for us tonight. We shall see. TBD.
What is your most memorable meal? Why?
Ariel: Yucca, mojo, and chicharrones. That’s a basic dish for New Years Eve in my hometown, Santiago de Cuba.
Where do you love to eat in Victoria?
As a way to connect with others, and celebrate food, we decided to organize a recipe exchange of your favourite sweet treats.
COVID-19 has illuminated many of the existing problems in our society, including food insecurity. We wanted to learn more about who is most affected, and discuss why these conversations are necessary, especially in the health and wellness world.
Nathan Smith is the photographer behind most of the portraits on Fare & Flourish, and many other interesting photo projects besides. We are so grateful to be able to showcase his beautiful visions on our website.