Ritu Primlani is the founder and executive director of Thimmakka’s Resources for Environmental Education, a nonprofit that, among other things, provides environmental education to ethnic restaurants in the San Francisco Bay area. She is a fellow in the Environmental Leadership Program.

Monday, 19 May 2003

BERKELEY, Calif.

Lately I have had the urge to pray. Not that I am religious at all; just that I’ve been feeling rather fortunate in the blessings department. It’s Monday morning and I’m thinking of my work with ethnic restaurants. My organization, Thimmakka’s Resources for Environmental Education, works on greening ethnic restaurants, and what a blessing that is!

Speaking, eating, and working with Burmese, Thai, Ethiopian, French, Mediterranean, Indian, Persian, Tibetan, African-American, Moroccan, and Ethiopian people — where else in the world but the San Francisco Bay area could I have such wonderful experiences? Cleaning up footprints from the Earth, talking in many tongues, and regarding the faces of the greatest cultures of the world with love everyday — these are many of the blessings in my life.

To give you a sense of how much I enjoy what I do for a living, let me share some memories. I remember once going on an assessment to Ahlishan, an Indian restaurant, and chatting with the owner, Sarabjit Kaur. She wore a bright orange and olive angora sleeveless sweater. It looked wonderful on her, and I said so. She replied, “Isn’t it gorgeous? My mother-in-law made it in Italy. It took six years to knit it, since we couldn’t locate the wool for the rest of the sweater.” And then she excused herself and went to the kitchen. She changed her shirt, came back, and handed me the sweater and told me to keep it. I am bowed down with the love and generosity of the people at the restaurants I work with.

A similar incident occurred at Thai Delight, a restaurant owned by Toy and Tuanchai Supsuwan, a lovely Thai couple. Frequently, when I went in, Toy was wearing a Thai shirt that I loved. One day, I sidled up to him and crooned, “Toy, that’s a lovely shirt. It would look wonderful on me.” He looked at me and said, “This old shirt! Get new shirt, this too old! If you like old, take me!” I gently reminded him that if I took him, Tuanchai would be upset with me. Anyway, it was the shirt I wanted.

After about five visits and much gentle pressure, I sat down with Tuanchai and said, “Tuanchai, you know I am going to take that shirt from that husband of yours.” Tuanchai said, “He has actually washed it, ironed it, and kept it for you. I’ll go get it.” She went home and got it, and I got my beloved shirt. In return, I gave Toy a brand-new Indian kurta in green (his favorite color); he said he looked like a maharaja. And the darnedest thing is, every time I wear his shirt, the Thai people claim it as theirs, and the Indians tell me I’m wearing a lovely Indian shirt. Frayed buttons and all.

Tuesday, 20 May 2003

BERKELEY, Calif.

Today I’ll be working in San Jose finishing up water audits for 13 restaurants in downtown. Add those to our original 30 restaurants in Alameda County (Berkeley and Oakland) and we have 43 eateries in our Greening Ethnic Restaurants (GER) program.

Consider this: Restaurants consume more energy per square foot than any other industry. They are among the greatest generators of recyclable and compostable solid waste — 24 percent of the food waste that goes to landfills in California comes from restaurants. They are also very high consumers of water and, due to improper dumping of grease and oil into stormwater drain systems, significant polluters of the ocean.

And consider this: Ethnic restaurants receive a disproportionately low amount of environmental outreach due to cultural and language barriers. Environmental inspectors working for cities and counties complain of the difficulty of reaching out to ethnic restaurant operators, which leads to lower levels of compliance at these eateries.

Now think about this: If you wanted to send an environmental message to ethnic communities, how would you do it? You could reach those who are religious through a church or temple, but you could reach virtually everyone through local ethnic restaurants. The 30 restaurants in our GER program in Alameda County get 600,000 visitations a year. Eventually, we plan to conduct outreach to 180 restaurants in the San Francisco Bay area, which altogether get 5.7 million visitations per year!

The first thing we did in creating the GER program was to bring all the environmental stakeholders together — energy companies, water companies, stormwater inspectors, the Alameda County Green Business Program, and the Smart Lights Program. These stakeholders now work with local community leaders — dedicated environmentalists who have an interest in the welfare of their own ethnic communities and who speak the languages used by restaurateurs. We’ve had great success so far: 90 percent of the restaurants we’ve asked to join our program have agreed.

Our environmental outreach focuses on four areas outlined by the Green Business Program: water conservation, energy conservation, pollution prevention, and solid-waste minimization. In these four areas, our restaurants have implemented 57 environmental measures.

Each year, Green Ethnic Restaurants:

  • save 1,026,000 gallons of water
  • conserve 75,000 kWh of energy
  • divert 83 percent of their solid waste into recycling and composting
  • prevent the emission of 50,000 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere
  • comply with stormwater management regulations
  • buy biodegradable, recycled, and organic products where possible

And the restaurants have saved $60,000 through these conservation measures!

Berkeley Mayor-elect Tom Bates congratulated our ethnic restaurants as “leaders in the restaurant industry in natural resource conservation.” Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) have specially recognized Greening Ethnic Restaurants for its unique merits. And this year the GER program received the U.S. EPA’s annual environmental achievement award.

We make a bridge between restaurants and the environment. That bridge carries a lot of love and a lot of environmental savings!

Wednesday, 21 May 2003

BERKELEY, Calif.

Wahoo! Guess who we recruited today to join our Greening Ethnic Restaurants project? Vic’s Chaat Cafe. This restaurant is intensely popular both with the “desi” (South Asian) community and with non-South Asians. They had refused to join us once after a phone conversation, and had been known for non-compliance with a Berkeley ordinance that prohibits the use of Styrofoam in eateries.

This time, we visited Vic’s Chaat Cafe with a business owner who knew the managers. Strategy No. 2, and it worked. I am thrilled to have them on board! And I am pleased with this exciting new trend, where restaurant owners participating in our program contact other restaurant owners they know and tell them about how we’ve helped them. This approach is fantastically successful in getting the new restaurants to agree to join. As things stand, 90 percent of the restaurants we ask to join our program say yes. Now, we are reaching the other 10 percent. So far, we have 32 restaurants in our program in Alameda County, and we’ll get a total of 60 this year.

In other good news, we’ve sent internship announcements out and have received a few responses. Exciting, exciting! And then I had this brainwave. You know how I’d been trying to diversify our funding stream to include individual donors? (Of course you don’t know that — but I have been working on that.) My brainwave was this: We’ll sell memberships to Thimmakka, starting at $10 per year. In exchange for that minimal cost, our members will receive a 10 percent discount all year at our participating restaurants! Isn’t that wonderful? Our restaurants get the publicity they need, we get memberships, and our members get discounts!

In the media department, we were interviewed by NPR and by Voice of America. The VOA interview, which is going to be broadcast internationally, was conducted in Hindi. I am doing what I can to get the word out; now if only we can get office space, I’d be really happy. We’ve been working out of my home, with one staff person (me), and I’d love to expand our operations. Thimmakka is going to grow a lot this year, and I want to make sure we have the room to do so.

What I really want to do is create a standard for restaurants. Just as there are indicators of quality and cost, I want to have another measure: how environmentally friendly the restaurant is. Our program is in a position to implement such a standard; we offer equal outreach to everyone, regardless of the size of the restaurant and the language they speak. And of course, our environmental measures help save money, so even if a restaurant’s owners don’t care about the environment, they certainly care about saving money and increasing their profits!

Thursday, 22 May 2003

BERKELEY, Calif.

The first time I came across the word “underserved,” I misread it as “undeserved.” There I was, wondering why Sikh farmers were undeserved of assistance.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Risk Management Agency contacted us about the possibility of our conducting outreach to Sikh farmers in California’s Yuba and Sutter counties. We followed up with a grant proposal and are now working with the USDA and Sikh farmers on lowering environmental and health risks. We also present marketing workshops to help them reduce their costs and further their success.

In retrospect, I can’t thank the USDA enough for approaching us about assisting our farmers. Yuba and Sutter counties are largely agrarian, and Sikh farmers have been there for three generations, with tremendous success in orchard farming, primarily peaches and plums. All sectors of the economy are struggling right now, and agriculture is no exception. This year, Sikh farmers in Yuba and Sutter counties are expecting to have 68,000 tons of uncontracted fruit — that means fruit that will go to waste! What a tremendous loss.

Thimmakka’s Resources is partnering with four interns at the University of California at Berkeley, one intern at UC-Davis, the USDA RMA, and several agricultural nonprofits to research what can be done with the Sikh farmers’ produce regionally, nationally, and internationally. All literature and marketing workshops will be available equally in Punjabi and English.

So far, we have gotten the literature translated into Punjabi and I have downloaded the Gurumukhi font (the Punjabi script; Gurumukhi literally means “from the words of the teacher”). Today, I’ll be typing it on my computer and making hundreds of copies. On Sunday, May 25, we will go to the Baisakhi festival — the festival celebrating the harvest of the Sikhs — and will talk to Sikh farmers there. They have imported a very famous singer from India for the occasion. The dance of the Sikhs is called bhangra, and it is the happiest dance in the world! Sikh men are known for their strength and for their amazing dancing. If you say “men don’t know how to dance,” you’ve never the seen the proud Sikh dancing! I know of no Sikh man who says, “I don’t dance.”

The Sikhs are a proud race, a race of quiet warriors. If you visit their farms, they’ll give you a tall glass of lassi, a traditional Indian summer drink made from yogurt and water, with foam on top and a garnish of burnt cumin. Or you might get a glass of sugarcane juice. They are known for their loyalty and their generosity; they would give you the shirts off their backs. My mother was known to say, “You will never see a Sikh begging. They will work, however menial the task, but their pride and their religion forbids them from asking anyone for financial help.” In India, I would sooner trust a Sikh man late at night walking down the street alone than I would anyone else.

To the Sikhs, two things are important above all else. The first is religion in action. I say action because Sikhs believe in charity, they believe in donating their time and skills, and the first lines of their prayer read “Ek Onkar, Satnam karta purakh, nir-bhau, nir-veir,” which means: “There is one God, and the name of that God is truth (God is truth, truth is God); truth is the doer, it is without fear, and without prejudice.” The second most important thing to the Sikhs is family. Their lives revolve around caring for their spouses and children.

In the dance of the Sikhs, the bearded men wear turbans, white shirts, and colored lungis (bottom skirts) in red, yellow, and green. They stand on each other’s shoulders and dance. They jump in the air and come running. The musical instruments are large drums called Dhol; it is a percussion dance. They throw their hands in the air and dance with glee, with joy. It is impossible not to smile when you are dancing and when you watch them dance. To me, it is impossible to look upon them and not have my chest swell with pride — for them, for my people of many faces, many tongues, many religions.

A chance to help my Sikh brothers and sisters when they are in need? I’d jump at it.

Friday, 23 May 2003

BERKELEY, Calif.

So we have 32 restaurants in Alameda County (Berkeley and Oakland) and 13 in San Jose in our Greening Ethnic Restaurants program. They are well on their way to being certified green. In addition to working with our environmental partners, we are working with corporate partners to get them special discounts and wholesale rates. For instance, to get them biodegradable plastic bags and biodegradable, compostable spoons and forks (instead of the plastic ones), we take the buying power of our 45 restaurants and negotiate rates with vendors to make environmentally friendly choices a financially viable option for our restaurants.

We are also offering a Green Ethnic Restaurants membership to all residents of Berkeley and Oakland. Starting at $10 per person per year for a student/low-income membership, our members receive a 10 percent discount at participating green restaurants. Our goal for this year is 1,000 memberships, which would bring us at least $10,000. We expect people will prefer going to our green ethnic restaurants and will want their favorite restaurants to join our program.

I want every restaurant to be a green restaurant, and every individual to be a green individual (and that does not mean “I recycle”). Stop and think for a moment — at the bottom of everything, the Earth sustains us. The computer you are sitting at right now was made of materials from the Earth. The water you drink and swim in, the air you breathe (and pollute), the clothes you wear — everything is given to us by the Earth. Even the currency we exchange to “buy” goods and services is printed on materials from the Earth.

Most cultures deal with that “giving” with gratitude — they ascribe it to God, and go to churches and temples to thank the creator. On the metaphysical level, that is all very well. On the physical level, however, how many cultures or religions give back to the Earth? (Jainism is one, but you won’t find many others.) What have I, you, we done recently to help the Earth be healthy? Even if you don’t believe the Earth is a living being, surely you can appreciate the damage done through pollution and the physical depletion of resources.

What can we do? One thing is to tread lightly. Think of all you can do in your personal and professional life to avert harm to the planet. If you’re a businessperson, think about the sustainability of your business — not just now but 100 years from now. Make your business decisions based on that timeline. Even if you are already a devout environmentalist, please think about your actions. If each and every one of us does not clean up our act, humankind will be known as the race that was never toilet-trained.

As the doctors say (but don’t usually do): First, do no harm. That is enough. And what a large task that is! If you cannot completely mitigate harm, do things that are less harmful. Find safer alternatives. Ask me, ask environmental groups — there are lots of steps you can take. Become part of an environmental organization. If you can’t donate your time to the Earth, donate your money. We don’t have a half-dozen Earths — just this one to keep and to love.

With that, I leave you. I hope you enjoyed a look into my life and work; I’ve enjoyed sharing my thoughts with you.

Be well, and do good.