Walking the well-ordered rows on the Vassar College Farm and Ecological Preserve grounds, the abundant food and flowers distract from a compelling detail—the city of Poughkeepsie. Since 1999, the increasing bounty of the Poughkeepsie Farm Project (PFP), a community supported agriculture project, has been integrating fresh, locally grown food into the community—the only such farm of its kind in its area. In early 2008, looking to expand upon its impact, the PFP brought in Susan Grove to be executive director. Grove brought a background in international affairs, economic development, and poverty alleviation strategy to Poughkeepsie, as well a deep regard for the value of fresh local food—an appreciation gained during her time in Romania with the Peace Corps.
Beyond the valuable work of the Farm Project, Grove sought to create a more inclusive, impactful outreach program, one that would change the nature of food awareness within the community. In 2010, Grove and the PFP identified a longshot possibility that would get them nearer to achieving their goals, in the form a Federal program allotting $100,000 grants to support a hunger-free community action plan. Grove led an impressive communal effort, joined by like-minded community groups such as Dutchess Outreach, Hudson River Housing, and the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Dutchess County. The PFP set to a comprehensive study of hunger issues in Poughkeepsie, collecting alarming statistics, as well as the coveted grant. The numbers called for immediate action: over 26 percent “food insecurity” within the community, 11 percent classified as “hungry” and another 15 suffering from a reduced quality of diet due to financial pressures. What is now known as the Poughkeepsie Plenty program boasts an increasing amount of community members, businesses, and community outreach groups on board, and is in the process of implementing a strategy that will make Poughkeepsie a “Food City,” providing the true plenty that gives the movement its name. For more information: Farmproject.org.
What is your role in the Poughkeepsie Farm Project? At the heart of everything we’re trying to do today is to build a just and sustainable food system. I came in to carry out that strategic plan, and work toward fulfilling that mission. And that has been a big learning and growing process for me: to try to figure out what our role is in that big and oh-so-important idea of a food system that is just and sustainable. The way in which I think about that is a food system in which people are at the center—that the food system is creating health for people. It’s not harming our natural resources, our land, our bodies—it’s organized in a way that really upholds positive outcomes for people.
When I came, there was this great, 10-acre farm—productive, with skilled farm managers [10-year veterans Asher and Wendy Burkhart-Spiegel.] The things most closely tied to the farm, like the training of future farmers, was very robust. We have a national reputation for people who want to come here to learn to farm. Also, the fact that we’re connected into an urban center with a lot of community involvement is a unique aspect of what we do. I was really tasked with trying to bring up and strengthen things like our education programs—things that helped us be more robust in fulfilling our mission.
How has the PFP succeeded in achieving its goals? In 2008 we saw maybe 200 kids a year on the farm; now we see 1,000. And we worked hard to make sure—and this is a big piece of the justice equation—to involve people who might not otherwise get these experiences. That’s who we focus on. We are open to everybody, but we have a special focus on the kids in the Poughkeepsie City School District. It’s very likely they’re never really going to have those opportunities to connect to the source of their food, have the positive fresh-food learning experiences that can really support them in choosing to eat well. We center our education programs on making sure that those kids get those opportunities.
On the food justice side, one of the big things that we do is make 25 percent of the food that we harvest available to low-income folks in our community—through subsidized CSA shares, through donations to soup kitchens, food pantries, and shelters. At our Poughkeepsie Farmers Market, we very intentionally make sure that we can accept all the different public assistance programs. It’s complex, and a lot of extra work to do that, but a third of the produce sold at our market is purchased using public assistance—so that’s a really important source of fresh food for our community.
How has Poughkeepsie Plenty evolved? We set out to make an action plan, and put in place an ongoing food policy council. The direction was toward creating awareness, energy, movement toward change.
We held 19 community food forums, with a wide variety of stakeholders from all over the community. We said to each one: What if Poughkeepsie was a food city? What if everyone could secure, prepare, enjoy and benefit from healthy food, what would that look like? We’ve taken those ideas and are applying them. An exciting example of it: Hudson River Housing is renovating a new building here, and they’re working to make the first floor into a food hub, with community cafe, community kitchen, and coop.
I’m inspired by what my great partner Brian Riddell of Dutchess Outreach says: Just like air and water, food should be a basic right that all of us enjoy. We all have the right to know how to nourish ourselves, and to have access to what nourishes us.