A bodega opened recently in Rochester, New York. It’s on Dewey Avenue about an eight-minute walk from my house on Selye Terrace in the Maplewood neighborhood. I went to check it out yesterday because I love Puerto Rican food and because I read or heard somewhere that the owner’s ostensible purpose was to help address food insecurity in Maplewood.
I’m so slightly skeptical.
Executive orders issued by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office about establishments selling liquor require that those establishments also serve “real food.” I am behind on all the EOs, but I think that includes liquor and corner stores? Maybe not.
I am ambivalent about state government willy nilly dictating “best practices” to any business owner without the approval of the legislature, and New York’s EOs about food and liquor and their relationship to gatherings that might transmit the Rona have caused a lot of business owners a lot of headaches in trying to comply . . . but the food served at the bodega I visited was barely in the category of real.
I bought a “large dinner” for ten dollars. It was steak tips and beans and rice, nothing else, and barely filled what I would call a medium styrofoam clamshell container. The meat was fried almost black, probably in re-used oil that had been heated to the point that it was chemically rancid and thus unfit for human consumption.
The beans and rice, with two chunks of white potato on top, were mushy. They were not quite as bad as porridge with beans, but certainly nowhere as good as homemade beans and rice or even beans and rice made from a Goya box. And after I consumed my dinner, I spent the rest of yesterday experiencing the symptoms I experience when I ingest things like MSG or canola oil or a few other unnatural food ingredients. I had a headache, blurry vision, nasal congestion, a strong feeling of anxiety alternating with anger, and floods of tears over relatively inconsequential thoughts and circumstances. Whatever type of food I bought, it certainly contributed to the opposite of food security.
The bodega I visited looked very similar to a small store I visited when my family went to Puerto Rico for a week in 2002. (It was an amazing vacation, my sister’s gift to my parents in celebration of their fiftieth wedding anniversary).
We spent the night of my parents’ anniversary on La Isla Nena, the small island of Vieques, at a lovely old inn called La Casa Frances, and with me anxiously reviewing my limited Spanish as we drove, my sisters and I walked out in search of a store where we could buy treats to open and enjoy with dinner.
After some tentative coversations with various people we met, we ended up at a very tiny bodega where the minimum number of cans or boxes or bags necessary to fill a particular shelf were carefully lined up. (These five items constitute the canned vegetables shelf: these five boxes constitute the cereal shelf, these five bags constitute the candy shelf.) The prices were very high, and all the items were covered in dust.
The bodega clearly was not an economically viable part of a lively, energetic, productive community. It did not exist to serve the people who built it and stocked it or their relativea and friends. Clearly, at least from my point of view, the bodega existed for the benefit of tourists who came to take a boat out on a night-time tour of Vieques’ unique “biobay” (where strange tiny creatures in the water light up magically when they are disturbed).
At the time my family visited Vieques, the economy in Puerto Rico was not by any means robust. There was a great deal of political agitation regarding Puerto Rico’s status as a territory of the United States. Many citizens of Puerto Rico wanted the island to become independent, and many wanted the island to be recognized as a state.
And everyone in Puerto Rico had struggle to come to terms with the legacy of the the Naval Training Range, a U.S. Naval facility in operation on Vieques from 1941 to 2001. The Navy did not worry too much about its effect on the island economically and culturally and economically when it shut down.
The bodega I visited yesterday was not dusty, but it certainly had the same appearance of being some sort of glorified food cart sitting on the side of the road in hopes of snagging a few bucks from passers-by. What was offered as “real food” was not prepared on-site; it was not fresh and fragrant; it was stale and warmed over.
Other items I saw were the typical city convenience store fare: beer, sugary fruit drinks, sodas, jerky sticks, candy bars, a wide variety of papers for rolling joints, knit beanies that could be rolled down over the face to cover all but eyes, nose, and mouth . . .
Whatever state regulations the bodega was trying to abide by in the serving of steak tips and rice and beans, and whatever customer base it was set up to sell to, helping to alleviate food insecurity in my neighborhood was not a big concern to the owner.
If that had been the case, when I arrived about one-thirty p.m. (the heart of lunch time), I would have (I assume) had to wait in line. Because even at its simplest, Puerto Rican food that is done right attracts a lot of attention because of its inexpensive price, its quality, and its abundance.
I may be slightly prejudiced, having eaten a number of times at the absolutely fantastic Puerto Rican restaurant La Olla Criolla (1582 East Main Street, Rochester, NY 14609–check it out on Facebook), a place which is heaven in a storefront. Their puerco asado is second to none as far as I’m concerned, and their flan is fantastic. They do a a bit more than simply address food insecurity since they are a restaurant, but the people I’ve seen in line are average citizen types picking up something on their lunch hour or taking something home for supper after work.
The bodega near my house doesn’t have that kind of vibe. It makes me wonder how the owner justified its existence to the Neighborhood and Business Development Department at City Hall. Because most store owners in my neighborhood end up in that department looking for tax breaks, incentives, and other help in order to function in a state where the powers that be would tax blinking if they could and certainly tax legitimate small business owners in punitive fashion.
I used to work for NBD when it was known as the Economic Development Department. I was a mere worker bee, the EDD receptionist for a time, but I never saw a single economic development specialist helping anyone start a business that would do basically what I would call not much to improve the quality of life in a struggling city neighborhood.
I’m not against corner stores, convenience stores, or whatever you want to call them. In fact, at one point in my career as a City of Rochester worker bee, my workload was so heavy and my time was so tight that I alternated eating out of vending machines at work with getting supper on the way home from work. I would stop at either a Wilson Farms store on Dewey Avenue or at a pizza shop that had a tendency to burn the bottoms of its pies more often than not.
That kept me from starving, but I would not call that an experience of food security. As a result of my form of eating out, I went from weighing 180 pounds, definitely overweight for my height, to 246, and I did not lose enough weight to get out of the obese category until two years ago after joining the Maplewood YMCA and getting serious about strength training and major diet changes.
I have lived in Maplewood since 1986 and been a homeowner since 2004. As the population has shifted over the years in terms of numbers and ethnic groups, I have lived and interacted with so many different people, and one thing has always been clear: people need food to function, and they need good, real food to function well.
It has always been the case for me that my Cuban and Puerto Rican friends have contributed immensely to the life of Maplewood as they have lived on and shared good, real food whether it be in someone’s home, at a Christmas party, or in a restaurant. Pretty people with shiny hair and eyes, gorgeous skin, beautiful teeth.
There always seem to be problems, however, when someone opens a “corner” store in a neighborhood like mine (considered the poorest neighborhood in Rochester, NY though that is a flat-out lie). Convenience foods sold in such stores (foods designed to imitate the tastes and textures of good, real food) are inevitably made and sold by companies owned by Big Food, America’s multi-million dollar conglomeration of “food producers” (I cannot quite bring myself to call them farmers) and food manufacturers (certainly not bakeries or butchers or delicatessens).
Owners of small stores in my neighborhood who offer “ethnic” food for sale inevitably end up becoming vendors of death by food because the items they purchase for resale are jammed with ingredients incompatible with vibrant human health. The amounts of table sugar, sodium chloride, flavor enhancers, stabilizers, and preservatives packed into any so-called food item in a convenience store cannot do anything but slowly kill whoever routinely makes them part of a daily diet.
I applaud the owner of the bodega down the street for his willingness to start a new business in the year 2020 in a state that for some decades has made it seem, tax-wise at least, that its nickname should be the Vampire State instead of the Empire State. But concern for the health and well-being of his neighborhood . . . nah, I don’t see that at all.