Tours expose city’s historic struggle for food sovereignty

The Underwear Factory lies right in the center of Middle Main, where the walking tour led by Professor Leonard Nevarez passed through as they visited several restaurants and stores in and around the area. Photo By: The Main Circle Initiative
The Underwear Factory lies right in the center of Middle Main, where the walking tour led by Professor Leonard Nevarez passed through as they visited several restaurants and stores in and around the area. Photo By: The Main Circle Initiative
The Underwear Factory lies right in the center of Middle Main, where the walking tour led by Professor Leonard Nevarez passed through as they visited several restaurants and stores in and around the area. Photo By: The Main Circle Initiative

Out of context, the phrase “Middle Main” probably spurs images of trying to push through the College Center on Tasty Tuesday, or perhaps walking down the aisle where the Retreat and the College Center intersect.

But on Nov. 5, Middle Main gained new meaning in the Vassar imaginary as students and faculty took a walking tour through Main Street in Poughkeepsie, surveying the restaurants in the city’s central hub.

As part of the annual Food Day celebration, which always prompts students to step outside of their comfort zones, this year’s celebration also added the tour as a way for students to learn more about what goes on beyond the Vassar community.

Although National Food Day is celebrated on Oct. 4, Sustainability Coordinator Alistair Hall explained that he and his office wanted to delay the event to coincide with the indoor farmer’s market. Hall believes that matters of food are far more complicated than making personal diet changes in our own lives. He stated, “It’s also more systemically around food justice or workers’ rights or factory farming or any number of issues. It’s supposed to bring all those movements together under one umbrella.”

The walking tour of Middle Main in honor of Food Day was led by Department of Sociology Chair Leonard Nevarez on Wednesday, November 5. Kayla Abe ’14, the Local Foods Intern with the College Committee on Sustainability, wrote in an emailed statement, “We had about 40 attendees for the Walking Tour, with a good mix of students, teachers, alums, and individuals from the community.” As they walked between the 400 to 500 address blocks that used to be the heart and soul of Poughkeepsie, a discussion arose about the food insecurity that so plagues the city.

“In addition to the walking tour, other Food Day events included an apple pie making workshop, a dessert and swing dance in the Aula with live jazz at which we served the homemade pies, the first day of the indoor market this season, and Local Foods Night at ACDC,” wrote Abe.

The tour was organized in part alongside the Hudson Valley Middle Main initiative. Hall explained that Middle Main is a collaborative effort of people in the community. “So it’s these business owners and these restauranteurs and community residents all coming together and saying, this is where the heart and soul of Poughkeepsie is, and we want to invest in it and conserve our community around here,” he said.

The idea of the tour, Hall added, was to get out into the community to really understand what’s going on outside Vassar. “There’s a lot of great work happening around Poughkeepsie around food insecurity and hunger, as well as we wanted to try and expand the community’s awareness of these issues while also trying to get students off campus more.”

Nevarez explained the sites that the walking tour focused on were also the focus of the Middle Main Initiative. Their starting point was at the Poughkeepsie Underwear factory, which has been out of commission since the nineteenth century. Middle Main hopes to reinvent it, however. “It’s going to be a mixed residential commercial building,” Nevarez said. “The residential units will be affordable housing, the commercial units will be given with emphasis to creative industries.”

He added that the commercial units will hopefully be able to incorporate food awareness. “And the goal is that they’ll build a sort of open cafe and a kitchen that can be used for not just business and entrepreneurial activity, but can be used for cooking demonstrations and things like that.”

The next few stops along the tour focused on cultural restaurants that serve to the immigrant community including Pat’s Kitchen, a Jamaican restaurant, and El Patron, a Mexican restaurant. Nevarez said, “The big story there is that for many years, until very recently, the city of Poughkeepsie has had no grocery stores. No full scale, large grocery stores with a lot of products and a lot of range in prices. The kinds of grocery stores that we take for granted out in the suburbs.”

Tropical Fresh is the second grocery store to come to the area, and the first run by local businesses. It was opened in an area identified as a food desert, which is an area with a specific concentration of low-income households that are more than half a mile away from a local grocery store. “It’s now much closer to those food deserts, and in fact that designation almost certainly needs to be revised.” Nevarez said.

Nevarez said that some of the ways people cope with food insecurity reduces them to scavenging and stealing. Nevarez recalled a moment during the tour when the topic of culturally appropriate food was broached, which is part of what Nevarez calls ‘food sovereignty’. “This is a new idea that is a change from the government cheese model of food pantries of old. Where people who needed food would be given big blocks of American cheese, the so called ‘government cheese,’” Nevarez said. “And a lot of people don’t know how to cook with that, but nevertheless, it used to be that food pantries would say, well, you know, hunger has been solved here.”

Nevarez applauded Tropical Fresh for helping to increase food diversity in the area. “It really has a wide range of ethnic products, and the owners are really interested in serving the community in terms of the specific foods they want,” Nevarez said. “And it’s got just an absolutely remarkable fish counter.”

Access to fresh food is an important part of the food security of a community. “We also just talked about the retail landscape and the commercial on Main Street, and how that’s been a problem for people’s food security in terms of access to grocery stores. The prevalence of corner stores that sell snack foods and high sugar unhealthy foods,” Nevarez said. “Stores that have a tough time keeping fresh food.”

One of the reasons Nevarez was approached about the tour was his involvement in the 2010 Poughkeepsie food investigation Nevarez was heavily involved in a survey and investigation of Poughkeepsie food conducted in 2010. In this survey, he found that one in four households are food insecure. “Food insecurity specifically means lacking the financial resources to be able to provide a household regular access to nutritious healthy food,” Nevarez said. “It’s a financial indicator but it has direct correlations with eating related disorders like heart disease, diabetes, obesity. It can also include hunger.”

Nevarez and Hall both felt that this was the first time for many students traveling into this three block part of Main. Abe wrote, “In my time at Vassar, I have come to learn about the issues of food insecurity in Poughkeepsie, and have studied the concept in classes and through internship experience; however, getting into the area we live and study in, and seeing the anxieties of food access at play is eye opening.” Nevarez added that just knowing the facts and going and visiting the area was the best way to get involved in some sort of non-charitable or non-classroom experience.

“Food can bring people together,” said Hall. “Whether that’s in learning how to bake or learning how to cook or seeing how food is a powerful influence on the city of Poughkeepsie, or how it can just be fun.”

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