Published on: May 27, 2017
"Let Food Be Thy Medicine and Medicine Be Thy Food."
There’s a new trend in T&T and, hopefully, across the Caribbean: green markets!
Not the cliché tourist-inspired space, but burgeoning, blossoming gardens of Caribbean creativity. They’re the home of picture perfect, home grown fruits and veggies, steaming cups of old fashioned cocoa tea and breakfast delights, all made from local produce.
Which is interesting… Because we all know how heavily we’ve depended on the US, LATAM and UK for food, including foods which are grown and readily available here.
So, finally, there’s a growing awareness: #SupportLocal has finally taken root and we’re beginning to appreciate the goodness of our own locally grown and indigenous foods.
Designer Island ventured into the original Green Market in Santa Cruz, Trinidad to find the market’s manager, known on Instagram as The Edible Sweetheart, and to take a taste of the Caribbean food revolution.
The self-proclaimed peacekeeper started working at the Green Market about two and a half years ago, when she returned home after finishing her studies in International Agriculture Development in California and a short stint with the UN.
We first discovered Rhea via her Instagram page EdibleSweetheart and instantly became admirers of her aesthetic and lifestyle. Her page is the perfect hipster wonderland – beaches, hiking, sunsets and an organic, vegan food lifestyle – but we soon got to know the real person behind the aesthetic.
We spoke to Rhea about her food journey and her dreams for T&T, as well as how the loss of her mother affected her feelings about food, the environment and our cycle of humanity.
Meet the Edible Sweetheart, Rheanna Chen…
Di: Traditionally, it seems that we like to start at the start. What’s yours?
Rhea: Definitely from when I was four years old. I lost my mom to leukemia and that left a deep childhood impression.
So, growing up, I did a lot of research and learned that leukemia is an environmental cancer, which means it’s not genetic. It’s caused, basically, by environmental factors.
Everything around us – the food that we eat and the environment – has an effect on us and the ones that we love.
I eventually asked myself, “How do we reverse this and create healthy spaces?”
It all started there.
Di: So was this when you realized that you were interested in food and agriculture?
Rhea: I always really enjoyed food while growing up. But I was 16 when I decided that I was interested in agriculture, which is so against typical Chinese culture where the expectation is business or medicine or law… But I wanted to study culinary arts.
And, even before that, around age 14, I was already looking in to cooking in bakeries and restaurants and online. But it was so demanding and the hours were awful!
I gradually got more and more interested in the environment: working for conservation of our forests, wildlife and the sea, while helping people. And I still held some resentment towards the medical field, blaming them for my mother's death. In a way, that sparked an interest in alternative healing modalities and preventative care.
So I thought to myself, “How can I merge all of this?”
Di: You studied in California. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Rhea: I was born in Florida but also have family in California. My mum and her sisters went there, so I followed.
Because I had such a specific focus, I looked for a university with a top-rated sustainable agriculture programme. UC Davis is located in a bike-friendly town and has a student led organic farm, ecological garden, cooperative community housing and inspiring environmental classes and study abroad opportunities.
Now, some rate it as the best in the world.
Di: What was your major at Davis?
Rhea: My major was a BSC in International Agriculture Development. I explored the global food landscape with a whole systems approach: the social, economic and environmental aspects of agriculture, as well as understanding our food cycle from farm to table and beyond. I focused on community development – the roots of hunger, poverty, power struggles, food access, health, nutrition and climate change, and travelled the world, visiting different farms while learning about food culture and different modes of production.
DI: What came after your studies?
Rhea: The humanitarian I was (and still am) always dreamed of working to alleviate global poverty and hunger at the UN Headquarters in Italy. But one of my college internships included working with the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (UNFAO) in Trinidad, and I got really jaded by multinational organizations – all the bureaucracy and the top down approach. I respect the ideology that they stand for. But I strongly believe I personally have to be connected to people and working with the Earth from the ground up… It’s just my nature.
The summer after I was doing a yoga teacher training in India and I had an epiphany: my heart was calling for me to come back home to Trinidad. I was totally unsure of what my island would have for me, so I just trusted my heart.
Since moving home, I've become my own little community leader and am better understanding T&T’s issues through culture.
Even though I’m a young Chinese female in Trinidad, there’s still so much power in being able to go into a community that you know, come from and love deeply.
Life at the Santa Cruz Green Market in Trinidad…
Di: What is your day like at the Green Market?
Rhea: Every day is like the first day of my life! I consider myself an artist, so I really try to treat each day like a masterpiece. In the morning, I wake up before sunrise to meditate, do some salutations, breathe and write.
Then I go to work at the farmhouse where we have chickens and guinea fowl ducks in the back. There are lots of fruit trees: bananas, mangoes, avocadoes, sapodillas, citrus and more. And there’s so much to decide, from meat to infrastructure: what products? What partners? What next?
There’s a lot of pre-planning. It’s a mix of everything and I think that’s why I enjoy the job. From farm visits to working with local vendors, planning food festivals and workshops; we have kids coming for garden tours, environmental education and food photography… plus we collaborate with other organizations, sometimes sorting recyclables from compostables and, at other times, responding to someone who thinks we are ‘green-washing’ the public. There’s always something new.
The Green Market is definitely a one-of-a-kind experience. We want people to walk away inspired, knowing they’re doing something good and say, “Yes, this is something you don’t get anywhere else.”
Di: The Green Market… from where it started to where it is now, how do you feel about the growth and the process? What would you say is one of your biggest challenges, other than the peacemaking, and building?
Rhea: It’s a challenge! And a compliment. And a threat... We’ve succeeded in creating this movement of markets across the island – South, East and West… but, when you have a limited population and people with differing incomes in different areas, it becomes a little bit stretched. And, when you have three or four markets on the same day, we struggle with sales. So our challenge is to keep innovating, keep doing something that they aren’t doing. We constantly have to ask ourselves, “Are we making it? Is our Green Market making it?”
Di: Has it changed much since you started?
Rhea: When I came, I was disappointed. There was nothing green about the markets except for the ambiance: unhealthy fried food, all waste going to landfill, styrofoam containers, lack or organic growers...
When I consider the Green Markets in California, our organic industry in Trinidad is so far behind, but how do you get people to be more conscious with their relationship with the environment? What do you do to instill this in a very subtle way, so that they feel inspired and say, “I want to do this!”
From live music, edible talks with community leaders, community supported agriculture program, styrofoam boycotts, more vegetarian/vegan and gluten free food options, night markets and festivals, social media presence, farm to charity and cafe deliveries, I have experimented with lots, learning humility and grace. So I can see where it can grow. We’re currently working to phase out plastics in 2017, it feels impossible, but… we have a vision and we just want to keep innovating.
Di: What’s your main goal with the market?
Rhea: At the end of the day, it’s an experiment in sustainable community development. As it's own form of ‘eco village,’ it comes down to creativity: we can do anything we want to. Yes, I can dream big, but in community development, I have to have all the stakeholders on board to make that happen, because if one person is bitter and grumbling, it is really hard to move the process forward. A community of dreamers AND doers, not just complainers, which our country is notorious for.
Di: What would you say to the people who say that the Green Market caters only to a certain class of people?
Rhea: I agree that there used to be more support from the upper income consumers. Nearly three years later, as we emphasize inclusivity and affordability, we now see a much more diverse mix of families and friends: age, ethnicity, gender, income and background.
Through traditional and more modern methods of communication, especially Instagram and Facebook, the word is getting around and we get people travelling from all corners of the island. I have friends that may spend $500tt on produce and crafts while others will walk with $10tt and just get cocoa tea, but they stay all morning.
So the question becomes: how do we make it enjoyable for everyone?
Di: Interesting… My parents live in Santa Cruz and my mom really enjoys having all these markets in her neighbourhood. For her birthday, all she wanted was for us to carry her to Green Market for breakfast so she could buy her fruits. Now she’s a regular and I don’t think she misses a weekend.
Rhea: It’s good to have those traditions. Studies even show that the people who live the longest aren’t necessarily the ones who focus on diet or exercise or money: it comes down to having meaningful, heartfelt connection and relationships with people in their communities.
Di: So, what do you think about the state of the food culture and food system is in Trinidad right now?
Rhea: We need a revolution! But it’s already begun so this is the most exciting time to be a young person with a good systems background. When I went to college, no one – none of my family or friends – could understood what I was doing. They were like, “You want to be a farmer?!”
Now, coming back, everyone’s hearing about climate change, our $6.5 billion import bill, the public health crises... People are starting to link the pieces together and to choose a more sustainable lifestyle.
We have no national organic standard or proper regulations on the use of synthetic chemicals by our farmers here in Trinidad and Tobago. We happen to be the world’s leading exporter in ammonia – needed for fertilizer production. And, while our wealth is founded on oil and gas, we have no reason not to invest in more renewable energy and a more sustainable food system that better supports the livelihoods of small scale local farmers, using methods that better protect our ecosystems.
It’s been so meaningful now to come home in a situation needing more young people to speak up and become active citizens advocating for solutions.
Di: And farming?
Rhea: Our farmers have been so marginalized! The people that are actually growing our food deserve much more dignity and recognition. So as a younger person, it’s really inspiring to come back and work in a space like the Green Market that says,
“Farming matters! The way we grow our food matters!”
As an island nation, we need to be able to grow food in a way that can actually feed our people. We need to look at how the government can create systems so we can access good, healthy food, not just for the upper and middle class, but for all. We need to have more food grown sustainably here in Trinidad and more people who are excited to get their hands in soil. We need to have people all over – in both rural and urban areas – growing their food, from tomatoes and celery to marigolds or chickens or anything!
There’s so much knowledge right here in our forests, in our seas, in our elders… it’s just a matter of accessing that information and sharing it. Food connects us all: we all have to eat. We just have to become more consciously aware of our food choices.
Di: Any final thoughts?
Rhea: I think when you lose your connection to nature, you lose your connection to your ‘self’ and something even greater.
To me, food is so powerful. Everyday, it’s the closest blessing from nature that directly nourishes our bodies and minds. It takes you on a journey into the past with memories; it takes you into the future, connecting you with strangers and loved ones. Think of the value of slowing down to share and enjoy a meal: that act alone holds the power to help us reconnect with self and each other on a deeper level.
Simply put, let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.
(food image courtesy Rheanna Chen)
Designer Island is a proud product of Caribbean Creative Collaboration. #InspiredbytheCaribbean
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Interviewer & Co-Editor: Tanya Marie
Tanya Marie is a Designer, Brand Consultant and the founder of Designer Island.
Co-Writer & Co-Editor: Nicole Martin
Nicole is Creative Professional and Writer based in Trinidad and Tobago.
Photographer: Kibwe Brathwaite
Photographer based in Trinidad and London.