“Busy photosynthesizing,” reads Arielle Brender’s Instagram bio, and she’s hardly being hyperbolic. The Bronx, New York-based student, farmer, and environmentalist quite literally converts her energy into food—sustainable vegan food, of course.
The 20-year-old self-pronounced hippie picked up farming one year at summer camp, and since then, farming and advocating for food justice have become her world. Need proof? Brender farms at her university’s community garden, lived in a hammock on a farm in western Panama last fall, and promotes nutrition and sustainability at The New York Botanical Garden.
Brender’s dual passion for food and environmentalism renders her Instagram feed a tree-hugger’s cookbook of sorts— photos of steaming lentil bolognese, mushroom kale curry, and barbecue butternut squash are peppered with lush landscapes and glamour shots of moldy vegan marinara. Her page leaves viewers both empowered and hungry.
We talked to Brender about sustainable farming, vegan-ing on a student’s budget, composting, and spaghetti squash in the interview below.
You describe yourself as a food justice advocate. What exactly is that?
Food justice encompasses the right of people to grow, sell, and eat nutritious and affordable food regardless of class, race, income, or gender. A perfect example of this is the South Bronx where they’re actually living in a "food desert," or an area in which people don't have access at all to produce or other health food options. That doesn't mean they don't have food nearby—they have fast food options or a local deli—but they don’t have access to raw produce or anything that's good for them. I believe that this starts on the farm. Large-scale corn and soy farming are subsidized by the USDA, who then flows that corn into cheap unhealthy products like [chips], soda, and really any processed food found in the supermarket with a long list of ingredients. These products are artificially cheap, but someone has to pay the real cost. Our current system largely targets low-income neighborhoods of color in the United States, making them vulnerable to things like heart disease, diabetes, and obesity due to a lack of nutritious food and the overwhelming presence of unhealthy food.
Every person deserves the same opportunity to education, autonomy, health, and options. Not only do we need to make these options available and affordable, we also need to educate people on their right to healthy food and on what it means to have healthy food.
Your Instagram seems to a hybrid space for foodies and activists. What triggered your passions for cooking and food justice?
I always joke with people that I was raised on Kraft macaroni and cheese and Skittles. I could eat anything I wanted to eat. Not only that, but organic was almost a bad word in my house. Nobody believed in it. It was always "organic, shmorganic." But I reached a point around seventh or eighth grade where I wanted to be skinny, and that manifested itself in me being extremely unkind to my body. Luckily, my oldest sister had gotten very into nutrition and cooking around that time, so I reached out to her and I was like, "I don't know what I'm doing, I don't how to eat healthy food." I was just extremely lost. So I started cooking—I didn't know what I was doing. I was doing everything wrong, but I just started cooking! I started learning different techniques and watching tons of Food Network. Cooking really became the love of my life.
When and how did you become interested in farming?
I was a counselor in training at a summer camp in the Berkshires where counselors developed a specialty to teach the kids. Going into the summer I was like, “I'm going to be the culinary specialist, I'm going to teach kids how to cook.” Then one day we visited the garden with the camp farmer. We set intentions before we entered the space, and he made it very clear that we were about to enter a sacred place. We went in, we were quiet, and we just sat there for an hour and picked weeds. I wish I had words to describe the connection that I felt to the Earth and to myself in that moment. Nothing had ever felt as meditative. I went up to the camp farmer, and I said, “I know nothing about farming, I know nothing about organics, I came [here] wanting to be a culinary specialist, but I want to work on the farm.” And so I did. It was so empowering to find something that made me feel good, that I had fun doing, and [that] also [made me feel] fulfilled, because not only were we farming, but we were teaching kids about social and environmental justice through organic farming.
You’re in your junior year of college. Are you pursuing an education in food or agriculture?
I’m double majoring in philosophy and environmental studies with a concentration in agriculture and food security. It took me a while to stand up and say, “I want to be a farmer. I want to do this professionally,” because there is such a stigma around it. Especially in this country, where the majority of people who own agricultural lands are older white men. It isn't desirable. But it's a really interesting field to be into right now. We’re seeing movements by young farmers, young sustainable farmers, young female farmers, and young farmers of color reclaiming the profession as older commercial farmers retire and as national environmental awareness increases.
What is the philosophy of your personal diet?
For me, it's all about just eating plants, just eating real food. But my philosophy in all things is that if we revert back to our identity as animals, if we eat the things that our bodies are made to process and only those things, and live an active lifestyle, we're going to feel and look good. I, by no means, think it's a hard and fast rule that everyone should be vegan. I believe that intentional eating, being kind to yourself, and living well in your environment and your own body is about making thoughtful choices, whether that means eating meat or not eating meat. It’s about intention and care.
How do you maintain an impact-focused vegan diet on a student’s budget?
I look at everything holistically. The division of where I spend my money is very different compared to how other students spend their money. You will not find one article of clothing in my closet that costs more than five dollars, I don't drink alcohol, and I’m a very particular consumer. Veganism doesn't have to be more expensive. That's a really common misconception. If veganism is something you [want] to do, it's just about allocating the funds and deciding what is important to you. We are voting with our dollars. [In terms of budgeting], produce has different prices everywhere, so you have to talk about where you are getting your food from. Another thing that really helped me to incorporate more vegetables into my diet was community shared agriculture boxes you can order online to be delivered straight to your door. There are many ways to eat well on a budget, but you also have to think about how much time goes into it. You have to be strategic, and for most people who are willing to be vegan money isn't really the issue— it's time. I meal prep when I can. I'll make a huge thing of lentil bolognese or I'll roast a big spaghetti squash in the beginning of the week and just keep eating that. I have definitely worked it out with myself over time, but the most important thing is about making a choice. If it's something you want to do, you'll make time for it. If it’s something you don't want to do, don't bother and don't make yourself feel bad about not wanting it.
How do you manage to farm as a college student in New York City?
I do some farming here in the garden at school, at St. Rose's Garden, Fordham University’s community garden. I bring my compost there a couple times each week, and I go in my free time in the warmer months and use it as a therapeutic space, and I'll just sit and weed for hours.
You lived in Panama last semester. Tell me about that.
In Panama, I taught nutrition and regenerative tropical agriculture to elementary age students and studied agroforestry and permaculture. Agroforestry is growing food in a forest setting, and permaculture involves growing food in an ecosystem in a way that improves biodiversity unlike in large-scale monoculture industrial farming. I was working in an agroforest every day, building things like aquaculture systems, planting trees all the time, and chopping down banana trees to encourage a close looped cycle. Agroforestry, in many ways I believe, is the future of so many agricultural schemes—I think it's the most sustainable way to do sustainable farming.
Can you talk about your work with the New York Botanical Garden?
I intern with Annie Novak at the Garden’s Edible Academy, which currently teaches approximately 50,000 people, primarily children, about nutrition, agriculture, and environmental science. The Academy offers after school activities, programs with local public schools, and field trips. This past weekend, we [hosted] a huge Culinary Kids Fest on nutrition and culinary arts. So the kids were making their own pizza dough, learning soda science, making soup with a visiting chef, and really just learning about food and the different ways you can prepare vegetables. I had the pleasure of working at the composting station where I was standing behind a table with a bucket of compost and worms, saying “Who wants to hold worms! Who wants to hold worms!” I was putting worms into the hands of these city kids who, in a lot of ways, are discouraged from digging their hands into the dirt. And while they're holding, I teach them about the worm's role in the ecosystem, and through this, I'm teaching them about compost and how instead of throwing their food in the trash, they can turn into this amazing thing that's like a vitamin for their plants. I really like working with children because I think if we let kids know they have a choice, that they can do anything that they want to do, and that they can care for themselves and others at the same time, then we can build a thoughtful economy of people who demand what they deserve. If I want to look at sustainability and plan for the future, I want to work with people who are literally going to be creating our future.
Are your environmental concerns heightened by our current administration’s indifference to the needs of our planet and the health of the American people?
I think that government and political figures are really important because they're symbols [that] hold so much meaning in our culture, but I don't believe that government is the most powerful force. If we look at history, change has been created by movements and the impediment is government. Yes, we all believe that the government is failing us in many ways. But I think we want to put a lot of the responsibility on our government, so that we don't have to assume responsibility, especially in regards to middle and upper-class people who have the option to be conscious consumers. I believe that those people have a responsibility to those who don't have that option to create a demand healthy products that create positive impacts.
I think that within us, we hold the power of the entire universe. I know that seems so hippie-dippie, but we have seen a handful of extraordinary leaders in our time—Marsha P. Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Malala, Nelson Mandela—people who believed they could change the world. Imagine if we all believed that we mattered that much, which we do; if you look at something like the impact of one hamburger, you can't deny that there is a huge impact for every decision that we make. Understanding the impact of every choice you make allows you to live an intentional and empowering life. At first, for me, environmentalism was an incredible burden. But once I started taking ownership, stopped blaming the government, and [began] forgiving myself, I realized that it feels really fucking good to live that way!
What lifestyle changes would you recommend to people who want to have a more positive impact on our environment?
First, educate yourself on how to sustain a healthy lifestyle. Second, reduce your meat and fish consumption. Impact-wise, that is the most powerful thing you can do. The next thing is if you can afford to be a conscious consumer, you have a responsibility to be a conscious consumer. I firmly believe that. That means a lot of things. It means trying to purchase as few things with plastic as you can, buying ethical beauty products, and even buying local and seasonal produce. I think voting with our dollars is one of the most powerful things we can do. The next thing I'll say is allow yourself to get out into the natural environment more. Be intentional about it. You're going to have more of a connection to the natural environment, and it's going to filter through your behavior. The last thing I'll say is volunteer; there are so many organizations all over the country that are dedicated to this work. I believe in sustainability in all things good. If I want someone to become a change-maker, if I want someone to feel that they're making a great impact, that starts first with them and nothing else. It starts inside their brain. That's the first step. If you really care, and it’s something you want to do, it needs to become apart of who you are. You need to cultivate it.