Wrapping Up

I write this post from my bedroom at my home in Pennsylvania. The semester is over for me and the rest of my housemates. Some are still in Poughkeepsie while others have made their way to other parts of the country or the world. This time of year is one for family. I feel that our house has become a family, a singular unit. We all have our quirks and our wrinkles, and it keeps things interesting. We are looking forward to inviting two new housemates into the family for next semester but are also saddened to see one of our brood open up her wings and fly as she goes into the real world to spend a semester in the City of Light where we are sure she will shine.

Our final week of classes concluded with a debriefing of the program and input for next year’s MLLC over lunch. Thoughts were exchanged on what worked best with the program and what could be improved. We all felt that we had done a big thing, accomplished a lot, and astonished that it was over already.

Things were pretty quiet our last week. We were hurrying to finish final projects, especially those of us who were heading home earlier than others. We finally found someone to take care of the chicken coop over winter break (a point of anxiety for the past few weeks) and were able to relax with a gingerbread coop-decorating event. We also did a gift exchange to celebrate the season of giving.

The next semester will be new again, with experiences different, yet the same. I’m sure it will take some time to get back into a rhythm when we get back with everyone’s schedules  misaligned. But I look forward to hearing about different classes and unshared experiences. I wish my housemates the warmest of holiday seasons and a Happy New Year. See you next year!


Alumnae/i Food Conference

Lee Zalben ’95

The Peanut Butter Guy: founder of Peanut Butter & Co. Mr. Zalben came prepared with a presentation he called “The Origins of the New Foodie Movement”. It was a talk about where he saw the “foodie” term and mentalities come from. He was preceeded by people telling personal stories how they got started in the business, history of what they had done in the field, and who gave some advice to current students. He got a laugh out of the crowd when he said that he felt like the student who came to class realizing that he didn’t understand the assignment. Even though Mr. Zalben’s talk was different than the rest, it was still entertaining and comical. At the end, everyone present received a jar of peanut butter and a fashionable “Dark Chocolate Dreams” tote.

Patrick Martins ’94

Mr. Martins was probably the most entertaining speaker. He was very animated and had a distinct speech pattern that was pleasing to my ear. Mr. Martins founded Slow Food USA after working in Italy with the founder of Slow Food International. Mr. Martins was president of Slow Food USA for several years before he moved to his current position at Heritage Foods USA. Heritage Foods USA works with farmers who grow heritage breeds of meats and sells them to chefs and consumers across the country. Heritage Foods also runs a radio station out of Brooklyn with lots of listeners. Mr. Martins brought up some interesting ideas such as the cost of good food. He defended the high prices of the products he sells because of their high quality. He also spoke of how local was never in the equation of Slow Food. An esteemed product from the other side of the country (or even world) is more highly valued than a local product of mediocre quality. Another idea that was brought up was the idea of a break-even business. Martins sees a beauty in this, in not being wealthy, and in struggling, but enjoying life.

Helen Nicholas ’71

Ms. Nicholas, along with her husband, started Royal Coffee in 1978. Royal Coffee imports “green” (eco-friendly) coffee and sells it to roasters. Ms. Nicholas had much to tell us about the entrepreneurial spirit, sticktoitiveness, and hard work. Ms. Nicholas came from humble beginnings and was able to attend Vassar on a scholarship. She was a literature major and truly enjoyed the community of people at school. After graduating from Vassar, she and her husband started their business and bought their first bag of coffee with a credit card. They grew their business one bag of coffee at a time. They were conscious of money management and would invest in the company at every opportunity. Her advice to us was “pay the bills before you pay yourself”. She sees people who run businesses instead use their business as an ATM and just take money out of the till. By investing money back into her business, Ms. Nicholas now imports one percent of coffee in the world and has new roasters calling her every day.

Maura Schorr Beaufait ’06

Ms. Schorr is the Healthy Food Access Coordinator for Food in the ‘Hood in the Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood of Boston. She had previously worked with the Cornell Cooperative Extension through the Green Teen Beacon community garden program. There, the students learned to see food as part of a nutritious and healthy lifestyle and as a potential mechanism for social change. She also worked at the Tufts-Friedman School of Nutritional Science where she coordinated environmental programs.

Carrie Blackburn ’08

Ms. Blackburn worked at the Poughkeepsie Farm Project and an organic farm in Costa Rica before working with Just Food. Just Food “connects communities and local farms with the resources and support they need to make fresh, locally grown food accessible to all New Yorkers. Just Food provides regional farmers and food producers, CSA organizers and everyday eaters with the resources and support they need to establish and experience healthy food systems—in every neighborhood.”

Robin Burger ’06

Hot Bread Kitchen is a place where foreign-born and low-income women and men can learn skills to become bakers. Ms. Burger works here and shared a bit about the organization, along with a lovely slideshow. The people who come into Hot Bread Kitchen are able to leave and start their own bakery or work in the culinary industry. Hot Bread Kitchen also offers English classes during the day. Still, the bakers are able to make the breads of their homelands, preserving their culture and introducing it to New York City.

Valerie Linet ’98

At Vassar, Ms. Linet studied English and creative writing. She spent time working at Phillies Bridge before going to graduate school to become a trauma therapist. After spending some time working in Poughkeepsie, she went to spend two years at a Zen Buddhist monastery. She spoke of silence and sitting in silence. Everyone was given a job at the monastery and her job was to take care of the garden. This garden had an aspect of self-efficiency because there were times during the summer when everyone in the monastery would be sitting in silence for the majority of the day and wouldn’t be able to tend to the plants. She saw a different aspect of gardening here, where farming was seen as a spiritual practice or spiritual training or a place for healing instead of a place of food production.

Abby Kinchy ’96

Ms. Kinchy, author of the book Seeds, Science, and Struggle: The Global Politics of Transgenic Crops spoke about agriculture, genetic engineering, and social justice. She is a sociologist who did graduate school at the University of Wisconsin. She talked about the green revolution and different political struggles around the world, surrounded by things like Roundup Ready® crops.

Lynn Mordas ’77

Ms. Mordas, who runs Dashing Star Farm, gave a short talk about business, the economy, finance, and human interactions. Dashing Star Farm is a family-run sheep farm that sells lambs, wool, sheepskins, and value-added wool products.

Erika Rumbley ’07

Ms. Rumbley was and environmental studies major at Vassar. Her final project for the department was the Poughkeepsie Community Feast. Many people all ate local food together at a long string of tables in a green space in town. She wanted to build pride and value in the Poughkeepsie food system. She now works with community gardens in Boston. She shared some of the strategies that were implemented to maintain the community garden there.


Dinner with Florence Reed of Sustainable Harvest and Susan Grove of the Poughkeepsie Farm Project

We were all ready to tromp out to the farm on that overcast and damp Thursday, the 4th of October, to given a tour by Susan Grove, executive director of the Poughkeepsie Farm Project. Florence “Flo” Reed, founder of Sustainable Harvest International (Sustainable Harvest International is a NGO that teaches and encourages organic and sustainable farming practices to families in Central America through on-the-ground employees.) was visiting for the week, had spoken to our class, and was ready to join us on our walk. Just as our biology class was wrapping up, Professor Cunningham appeared in the doorway to give an announcement. Because of the inclement weather, Ms. Grove had called off the tour and would instead be joining us in Ely Hall to give a presentation. Mixed emotions welled up inside me. I was looking forward to walking around the farm, but at the same time I didn’t want to get my feet and boots soggy again (I had traipsed through wet pastures the past two weeks for my field work and I was beginning to worry about trench foot).

After grabbing some lunch, we met in a second-floor room of Ely where Ms. Grove had a PowerPoint presentation to show us that highlighted some of the work and future goals that the Poughkeepsie Farm Project has done and will continue to work toward. After that and some round-table discussion, we made plans for dinner. We cordially invited both Ms. Reed and Ms. Grove to our apartment for an evening of food and light conversation. We attempted to give directions to our TH to Ms. Reed, but we finally folded when Ms. Grove offered to pick her up and drive her there. We all went our separate ways with Maddie frantically running to the store to buy orzo for the dish she had planned at least a day in advance.

The dinner hour came and Ms. Grove and Ms. Reed showed up at our door with timeliness. We all sat down around the table and dished up. The orzo was warm with gooey pieces of mozzarella and succulent slices of eggplant. Ms. Grove asked us to go around and tell a little bit about ourselves and our field works.

After talking about us someone asked a question about them. We thought it funny how both of them had been Peace Corps Volunteers. Also, their volunteering seemed to have impacted their career choices.

Ms. Reed had volunteered in Panama. She told of initial woes and a lack of Peace Corps infrastructure (she had been in a group that was the first back to Panama in a long time). She eventually got some projects going and while in the country, she noticed their use of slash-and-burn agriculture and some of their attitudes and practices toward native flora. She told us about her work in NGO’s after coming back from Panama and then forming her own based on what she experienced in Panama.

Ms. Grove had gone to Romania with her husband after working in accounting for a number of years. In Romania, she worked in economic development while her husband taught English at the local high school. She regaled us with stories of nights of dancing, music, and wonderful food. Her experiences were much different than Ms. Reed’s with the ability to attend state-sponsored orchestra concerts for a dollar. But Ms. Grove’s experience with the Romanian food system is what brought her to where she is now. In Romania, she saw a vibrant, healthy food system that focused on in-season, fresh, local ingredients. It was this kind of system that she longed for in the United States, and has attempted to bring about with her work at the Poughkeepsie Farm Project.

Our guests couldn’t stay too long, with Ms. Reed needing her sleep to catch an early train down to New York to attend some meetings. We thanked them for coming by and assured Ms. Grove that we would see her again soon. With that, they opened the door, stepped out, and disappeared into the darkness.


Dinner with Professor Pinar Batur

The aroma of warm spices wafted up from the two pots of Moroccan stew simmering on

the range. Two of our housemates were busily mopping the floors, readying the house for our esteemed guest and completing their chore for the week. I acted as sous-chef, asking Executive Chef McDermott for a new task after each completion. Potatoes had been

peeled, onions had been chopped, and garlic had been minced. My heart skipped a beat when she pulled out the secret weapon: a half-dozen yellow torpedoes filled with a dangerously delicious amalgam of chicken, lamb, Moroccan spices, dried apricots, and I’m sure more than a couple secret ingredients. She had procured the goods from the butcher shop where she works. The sausages went into one pot, the other being strictly veggies.

Once the potatoes (regular and sweet) in the stew achieved done-ness, the vessels were transferred to the table and the table was set. The dinner triangle was rung and the Coop gathered to feed. In stepped a delightfully cheery Pinar Batur. She was all smiles as she explained that she wouldn’t be eating with us, but would instead talk and ask us questions while we would answer in between bites of savory stew. She also couldn’t stay for long, as tonight was the first of the Presidential candidate debates, and she was excited to see how they would go.

As we began dinner, I found myself in a bit of a conundrum. My appetite had grown and grown as I stood over the stove, inhaling the intoxicating fumes. I had a bowl filled with rice and stew in front of me along with my notebook to retain information for this blog post. I soon regretted never having learned to eat with my left hand. With Professor Batur unencumbered with a meal, she was able to speak at amazing speeds. There I was, trying to sate myself with large spoonfuls of boiling hot stew at the same time furiously scribbling notes on what was being said. I then attempted larger spoonfuls to make up for the time I had to set my spoon down and pick up my pen to scrawl some more. Eventually, I spurned the desires of my flesh and focused on recording the words of Professor Batur.

Before Professor Batur came for dinner we were relayed some strange instructions: don’t take out the compost. She was to talk to us about food waste. I think it’s safe to say that we were all prepared to be berated for our surely inefficient food preparation and wastefulness. I heard us sigh only a small collective sigh when she told us at the dinner table that she would instead be talking to us about food with regard to the Presidential campaign and to policy. It was a fitting topic for the night, given the circumstances.

Before we got the conversation started, we did introductions. Professor Batur has served as the chair of both urban and environmental studies departments here at Vassar. She is interested in studying social movements and inequality in the form of segregation of populations. She also champions the idea of education as a form of empowerment.

Professor Batur opened the night with Wendel Berry’s comment that “eating is an agricultural act,” and Michael Pollan’s development on that when he said “eating is a political act.” She then asked us how the President and the Republican Presidential nominee ate and how their acts of eating reflected something about themselves and how they were portrayed (whether they wished to be or not) because of it.

She then spoke of how food and food policy factored into the current politics. Professor Batur mentioned three food issues that were being spoken about.

  1. Food safety – is what we are eating safe?
  2. Farm help
    1. immigration – documenting agricultural workers vs. trying to take them in and out of the country with the change of seasons
    2. rights for farm workers
  3. Nutrition – also, regulating peoples food habits using SNAP program

However, none of these issues deal with the more global food issue that is present. In closing, Professor Batur told us that because such issues would not be dealt with by presidents or other leaders, instead she gave us the charge of building more of a grassroots system for changing food in America and across the globe. She encouraged us all to take her senior seminar next semester “Toxic Futures.” She said that she allows the students to choose which books to study in the class, so we could really make of it what we wish. And with that she packed up and headed out the door with a twinkle in her eye and a smile on her face.