Surviving and Thriving: Vegan, vegetarian eateries face the pandemic in PVD and Pawtucket

Prior to the pandemic, you could often find Rob and Uschi Yaffe seated at the end of a long, reclaimed wood table in the middle of their casual fine dining restaurant, the Grange. The brunch rush bustling around them; mason jars filled with sweet tea and tart lemon wedges or strawberry and peanut butter smoothies are delivered on trays to each table of the dining room. Servers slip through the archway to the kitchen, carrying out hot plates filled with spicy home fries and vibrant green avocado toast. The Grange presents each diner with a down home, farm-to-table vegetarian meal in a comfortable, nostalgic environment. 

The Grange is just one of three storefronts owned by Rob and Uschi. Along with vegetarian food spot Garden Grille and vegan bakery Wildflour, they support the ever-growing group of people with vegan and vegetarian lifestyles in Providence and Pawtucket. At the heart of the Yaffes’ businesses is their desire to foster the beliefs and values of the people of Rhode Island. “It’s always about the community. It’s always around the core value of what does the community want? What do they need? What’s not being done?” Rob said. All three of their restaurant spaces are full of soul and spirit, each one welcoming and nostalgic. Rob and Uschi hope to continue to foster this growing community, but the COVID-19 pandemic has created a whole new world of challenges in carrying on this vision. 

When whispers of a virus afflicting China reached the East Coast, it was easy to feel the problem was far away. That was until early March, when managers first starting hearing about employees feeling unsafe coming to work. Prior to the official shutdown of dine-in restaurants and bars, Rob held a meeting to discuss next steps; it was obvious the virus was spreading. “It was a Monday, we were having a meeting of what are we doing? What’s the best thing for safety of staff and customers?” Rob said. “And we were like shut them all down.” That same day, March 16, 2020, Governor Raimondo officially announced the closing of bars and restaurants. 

The food service industry as a whole has been hit hard by the pandemic, but the Yaffes’ businesses are finding their way through the challenges. They’ve supported their employees, helping feed them and their families as well as covering health insurance through the first month of the pandemic. They also received assistance from grant money, and fortunately are still making a profit amidst reopening. “Both Wildflour and Garden Grille are still strong enough to make a little bit of profit during COVID,” Rob said. “Right there that’s something I’m unbelievably grateful for. If you can make money during a pandemic, that’s quite a business that we’ve all created.” But Rob says every day is still a challenge. 

In addition to financial struggles, the pandemic has taken an emotional toll on restaurant owners. “There is no coming together as community anymore, we don’t have gathering places anymore,” Rob said. “For me it was all about bringing people together, connection, creativity, just that buzz of human activity and community building.” 

Prior to the pandemic, it was incredibly common to see Rob and Uschi bouncing about their eateries, greeting customers with hugs and handshakes, warm smiles and easy conversation. For a while Rob tried to maintain this relational aspect, standing outside the restaurants during business hours each day to greet customers coming and going. “My connection to the businesses were always relational. When you go for a pickup it becomes transactional. So I had this need to add some kind of relational aspect to it, and I did that for six or seven weeks … but not having that initial facial recognition and contact, no shaking hands or giving a hug, you lose that sense of bonding that makes the conversation flow,” Rob said.  

By the end of April, early May, Rob hit his breaking point. “All my passion, all my vision, all my everything, just vaporized,” Rob said. While the Yaffes’ still own their businesses, they have largely stepped away from operations, leaving the restaurants to their reliable managers Jon Dille and Deanna Lockhard. “I’m very grateful for the staff and Jon and Deanna for what they are doing,” Rob said. “We had a core group of people that really came in with the intention of let’s come together and make this work, and I’m very grateful for the people who came in with that frame of mind.”

The businesses continue to find ways to reach their customers and foster community, though challenges still arise. “Customers coming in for the most part are fine, they’re good, but everyday you’re dealing with people who don’t accept the rules and the new way of procedures on how to keep things safe. Then you’ve also got staff that don’t feel safe working.” The restaurants require customers wear masks and encourage frequent handwashing. For employees, masks, frequent handwashing and health checks are in place. 

The Grange, Garden Grille and Wildflour are serving the community as best they can given the times. Currently, all three restaurants are open for takeout, and the Grange and Garden Grille offer outdoor dining options. As far as indoor dining and delivery, the restaurants don’t currently see these options becoming available anytime soon. “We’re not going to open up, at least not now. I don’t think it’s cool, I don’t think it’s safe,” Rob said. “I think this period that we’re in, it’s going to pass in a year or two. The whole emergency crisis part of it will be over.” Until then, the restaurants will continue with social distancing measures, so remember to wash your hands and wear your mask on your next trip to the Grange, Garden Grille, or Wildflour. 

Creating a Climate Stable Future: Environmental stewards continue to shape the future

Environmental education in Rhode Island schools is proving to be an effective way of inspiring stewardship in young people, as seen through the efforts of schoolyard green spaces and gardens, and adding climate change in the curriculum. However, there are still boundaries being faced by those trying to provide access to environmental education to all groups of students. 

Environmental education has largely focused on elementary and middle school student populations. Members of the Rhode Island Environmental Education Association (RIEEA) voiced minor concerns about environmental education being incorporated into lessons at the end of middle school and throughout high school. 

“I have found it easier to get access or to work with schools that are preschool or elementary … but when they get to middle school and high school, sometimes it’s a challenge when the teachers are specialized,” said Lisa Maloney, a Rhode Island Audubon Society educator and RIEEA board member. When classes begin to focus on a single subject with a specialized teacher, it seems less likely for environmental education to be incorporated into specific, set curriculum. Not to mention, younger students are more likely to go on field trips and takes classes outdoors for immersive experiences.  “An elementary school teacher is much more likely to go outside for a half hour and think we can get ideas for poetry, we can talk about nature as science, and then they can think about fitting all those pieces together,” said RIEEA project manager Jeanine Silversmith. Specialized middle school and high school educators may have a harder time finding ways to make these connections within their disciplines. 

Maloney states that although it’s a challenge, it’s a good challenge. The solution is to have more collaborative work among the different disciplines to provide environmental education. “I do think environmental education is very interdisciplinary, which is often the wonderful thing about it,” Maloney said. Within the school systems, interdisciplinary environmental education manifests as teachers and administrators working together to break down silos and provide holistic education for the students, something that could have positive impacts for students and faculty alike.   

While there are challenges, there are also advantages to targeting these older age groups, one being a higher learning capacity as students progress through their schooling. Environmental education with younger age groups often entails simple connections to nature, which can be as easy as bringing lessons outdoors for students. But for Holland’s middle schoolers, the lessons can become more complex and in depth. “All the 8th graders have a pretty in-depth climate change unit at the end of the year, but it’s a history class so it’s more of policy, case studies, what’s happening around the world in different regions, how are they thinking about managing that in terms of going forward, mitigating, adapting,” Holland said. 

As students reach these milestones and can form a more complex understanding of issues the environment faces, they can also turn to action. With parent permission, a decent showing of Moses Brown students attended the global climate strike in September of 2019. These types of actions can also lead to students further self-educating and advocating. Along the way, there are even populations of students that make connections to future careers. “When I think about environmental education with little kids, we’re not necessarily talking about careers, but when we’re talking about middle school and high school we get those connections to careers and that is really big,” Maloney said. As a Green Ribbon School, Moses Brown also shows that they’re working to help students make connections from their lessons in environmental education to sustainable jobs. 

The sustainability committee at the Moses Brown School hopes to continue to focus on environmental literacy for students all the way from preschool through high school, with curriculum that builds upon their environmental learning through 12th grade. In creating this curriculum, Holland and the school’s sustainability committee aim to quantify what graduates should know, experience and understand as it relates to environmental awareness and climate change awareness. Mapping out a curriculum that tracks the experiences kids should have from nursery to 12th grade that relate to environmental education is the next step the school hopes to take. 

As schools like Moses Brown continue to build upon their environmental education curriculum, RIEEA continues to work to break down boundaries and provide access to environmental education for all groups of students. With the current uncertainty of the COVID era, it’s also important to consider other ways environmental literacy can be formed outside of the school system, whether that be in the home or extracurricular activities. But with a basic understanding of environmental education that’s being provided within Rhode Island schools, students can begin to take their own initiative and make their own personal  connections to outdoor spaces.  Only through increasing access to environmental education and sustained connection and appreciation for the environment will we continue to see a generation motivated to create a climate stable future.  

Eco-Warriors: Providing educational experiences in the natural world

Educational experiences that create awareness and connections between personal actions and the natural world are helping kids to develop perception and values regarding their environment. Schoolyard Habitats, the program that provides grants to create green spaces on school grounds, shows that when kids have informative experiences within the natural world, they begin to understand their own connection to nature. However, these experiences infrequently happen organically as kids stay connected indoors and remain disconnected to the outdoors. “A lot of teachers recognize how little time their students spend outside and how much focus there is on technology. They have an innate understanding of just how beneficial it’ll be to spend time outdoors,” U.S Fish and Wildlife biologist Cindy Corsair said. Those teachers are right.  

Studies by the Children and Nature Network, a worldwide initiative to increase children’s access to nature, have increasingly shown that getting outside has benefits for health and wellness. Improved eyesight, healthier bones, higher fitness and subsequently, a reduced risk of obesity are all physical health benefits to be gained from time outdoors. The Rhode Island Environmental Education Association’s (RIEEA) project manager Jeanine Silversmith affirmed, “The benefits of environmental education run from the physical benefits of fresh air, movement and a healthy experience to mental health.” Mental health benefits include reduced stress and increased socio-emotional skills. Learning in natural environments also has correlations to positive academic outcomes such as increased focus, enhanced performances in a range of school subjects, and an overall increased enthusiasm for learning. Not to mention, the Children and Nature Network points to spending meaningful time in nature during childhood as one of the biggest factors that contributes to environmental stewardship in adulthood.  

Even with all the positive impacts of immersing kids in the outdoors, environmental education is no longer just about getting back outside and instilling a simple appreciation of nature. It’s about addressing the looming issue our natural world faces: climate change. Graham Holland, co-clerk of the Sustainability Committee and a 7th and 8th grade history teacher at Moses Brown School in Providence envisions climate change lessons incorporated into the curriculum, starting with a foundation in nursery school that can be built up through their senior year of high school. The committee Holland helps to oversee is composed of teachers, students, parents, administration and cafeteria workers who all sit down and consider what goes on around campus in terms of environmental responsibility. “My goal is to have enough people in the conversation that when they’re in other conversations, they’ll always have that lens to speak through,” Holland said. In 2017, the Quaker private school was designated a Green Ribbon School, distinguished in providing environmental education and reducing environmental impact by the Rhode Island Department of Education.  

In terms of educating on climate change, Holland points out that there’s already great stuff happening across the different grade levels. It’s just that no one has catalogued which lessons are taught and when. For Holland and the Sustainability Committee, a curriculum mapping initiative is a key item to work on. They envision a curriculum that starts with foundational knowledge from an early age that’s built upon to form an understanding of the climate crisis, the changing natural world, and the human connection to it. In doing so, Holland wants to consider what educational experiences kids have from nursery to 12th grade as it relates to environmental and climate change awareness. He wonders, “What should our graduates know and understand and have experienced?”  

Holland has found that his 7th and 8th grade students are receptive to learning about the topic. While conducting a climate change unit last year, he noted that the students were very thoughtful and deeply concerned. “That’s one of the trickiest things about teaching the subject. I don’t think people really know yet how to do it, meaning what is the right age to start talking to kids about this and in what way and what’s the balance between scaring kids and being honest with them.” Holland additionally points out that addressing climate change in curriculum can be difficult due to the uncertainty of exactly how climate change effects will play out.  

Regardless of how things play out in the future, environmental education is playing out in schools here and now. The young environmental stewards of Rhode Island are shaped by the education provided within the school system, whether that be through schoolyard green spaces, gardens or climate change in the curriculum. As a whole, Rhode Island has been successful in integrating environmental education into the classroom, though Tracey Hall of the Rhode Island Audubon Society believes there’s still room to expand. “I think it’s pretty integrated, but we have more to go,” Hall said. “We’re still missing schools, we’re missing populations of kids.” Hall says that the state is starting to see urban schools increasingly take on environmental education programs, a good step toward further integration. And with the recent award of the Schoolyard Habitat Program Grant to Kent Heights Elementary School in East Providence, another school gains access to environmental education and all the academic outcomes, health benefits and future eco-warriors that come along with it.  

Inspiring Environmental Stewardship: Educational opportunities make kids aware of the world around them

Note: This continues our series on environmental education. For part one in the series, go to motifri.com/a-new-generation-of-environmentalists

As I begin to uncover what encourages environmental stewardship in young people, my first thought turns to one question: What’s being incorporated into education that inspires a sustainable mindset toward nature? The importance of this became clear to me in summer 2019 on a rural island in Maine, about an hour north of Portland. With a group of 40 educators of all forms and from all over the US and beyond, we spent a week immersed in the natural world at a nature educator’s course led by the Audubon Society of Hog Island, meant to provide attendees with techniques to engage both children and adults in nature. I left my week on Hog Island inspired after receiving the tools to take lessons from the natural world and bring them back to our communities. 

I brought back with me a curiosity for environmental education and how it’s incorporated in PVD. On a cool fall night at Roger Williams Park, the Rhode Island Environmental Education Association (RIEEA) hosted a potluck full of food and conversation on the significance of  environmental education and the boundaries that exist when integrating education into the lives of children and adults alike. According to RIEEA, environmental education is the process by which students learn to become environmentally literate, meaning they have an understanding of the environment, what factors can have an effect on it, how humans impact the environment, and how to investigate and take actions on solutions to addressing environmental challenges. This rather broad definition leaves room for interpretation, especially in terms of implementing and integrating it into school curriculum. At the same time, this means that environmental education can be as simple as getting kids outside.

One way this takes shape is through the Schoolyard Habitat Program, a collaboration between the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Rhode Island Audubon Society. The program provides grants to create spaces on school grounds that are beneficial to both wildlife and school culture. “It’s important that the project is ecologically sound and provides resource benefits, but can also be accessed and used regularly for the school and teachers,” said US Fish and Wildlife Biologist Cindy Corsair, who works as the technical lead for habitat restoration. This can mean planting flora that attract native migratory species and pollinators or creating a vegetation buffer between school land and streams. Since the start of the program in 2016, five schools have created habitats in their schoolyard.

In 2018, Alice M. Waddington Elementary School in East Providence received the Schoolyard Habitat Program Grant. Waddington sits on the Annawamscutt Creek, a feature that’s the highlight of the schoolyard habitat. With the help of the grant, Waddington has re-planted portions of the creek with native food plants to increase wildlife appearances, included sensory plants for learning experiences and with the help of the students, posted signage with educational information and a mission statement: a place to inspire more kids to visit and conserve the creek. 

“We’re educating citizens first and foremost,” said RIEEA’s project manager Jeanine Silversmith. “With environmental education there’s communication skills that are built up and students gather evidence, make decisions, analyze things and more,” Silversmith said. Silversmith believes that environmental education is all around just good education. Donna Long, a 5th grade teacher at Waddington Elementary has seen this firsthand, too.

“Sometimes kids will bring their parents here on the weekend to make sure it’s not dammed up. Or they come and they look for frogs,” said Long who utilizes the habitat with her students every week, weather permitting. With boots, nets and shovels in tow, Long and her 5th graders catch little fish, gauge temperature and depth, and collect water and soil samples to further analyze in class. Long encourages her students to consider the landscape and what may affect it day to day, whether that be the RIPTA bus parked by the creek at the shopping center down the road or heavy rain fall leading to higher water levels. “It’s just awareness for kids at this point,” Long said.  “Where do things come from and where do things go?” 

Creating awareness, making connections and understanding cause and effect of personal actions on the natural world is the first step that points to early signs of stewardship. Millicent Todd, a founder of the Hog Island Audubon Camp once wrote, “Only by securing a sustained, genuine interest in nature on the part of children can we hope for a grasp of the need for conserving our natural resources before it’s too late.” Todd’s words ring true, and I could now clearly see the importance and purpose of both arousing and capitalizing interest in the outdoors through initiatives like the Schoolyard Habitat Program. 

A New Generation of Environmentalists

When I was going through the public school system, there was no such thing as environmental education, not in the way that it exists today. The only integrated outdoors time we had was recess and, on occasion, gym class. This was an era when phones didn’t yet have screens and computers were still large, bulky boxes designated to one room on campus. Tablets were still a distant future too, something that today is commonly incorporated into classrooms. For my generation, childhood was centered on spending time outside. Perhaps this is where my love of nature was instilled, deep in the backyard woods of my Midwest hometown.

This connection to the natural world grew as I did, manifesting into a career as a marine scientist, which has allowed me to see, first-hand, how climate change affects our world’s largest ecosystem. I’ve studied reefs over the course of three years and observed coral bleaching, which has, among other experiences, provided me with the perspective to understand just how fragile these systems are. And while I may not have grown up with an iPhone or touch screen tablets, there is something else the youngest generations has on their hands that I didn’t in my youth: the climate crisis. 

Young people are calling on their leaders to implement change on a crisis that will affect their generation most. This fall, the global climate strike brought together more than 1,000 people in PVD, many of whom were students striking from school. They are the climate fighters of the future who have decided that the science speaks for itself, and it’s saying that climate action has to happen now. Students’ ability to recognize the power of their own voice is something I was unable to distinctly recognize within myself at a young age. A major component, one that history has shown time after time is required for a group to speak out on an issue, is education.

In an upcoming series of articles that aims to uncover what inspires environmental stewardship in the young people of Providence, I’ll explore what’s being incorporated into education locally, such as grants that fund schoolyard habitats and programs that recognize school sustainability practices. 

Follow this upcoming series at motifri.com