Farm Fresh Rhode Island is a non-profit dedicated to developing a local food system that strengthens the links between Rhode Island farmers and eaters. The organization, based in Providence, runs farmers’ markets and a variety of other initiatives that make local food more widely available throughout the state.
1. Where did the idea for Farm Fresh RI come from?
A grocery store in Providence was selling potatoes from Idaho, and I had just gotten back from visiting with some potato farmers on Aquidneck Island. Aquidneck used to be a potato-growing hotspot for the country, but in 2003 farms there were struggling to sell their potatoes and getting pennies for them shipping them out to a wholesaler in New York. And there we were in Providence, just 20 miles away from the farms, and the grocery stores were shipping potatoes in from Idaho. There was a big "huh?" moment.
The local food system from farm to table has gotten increasingly complex over the past few decades, but a potato is a potato and it didn't make any sense. It wasn't an issue of price point but more that the connections between the marketplace – grocers, chefs, distributors, consumers – and the local growers had been lost. So Farm Fresh started as a project to identify the barriers that were preventing local growers from connecting with the local marketplace.
2. Some argue that local food is too expensive for many families in the current economy. What's your response?
Sales at our farmers' markets are way up this year. We've done surveys across grocery stores in each neighborhood we run a market and found that buying directly from the farmer is more often than not the cheaper way to shop for fresh fruits and veggies. And there's rarely a comparison when it comes to freshness or flavor.
If you're referring to a pint of cherry tomatoes that costs more than a bag of Cheetohs, then you're asking why fresh, good food is more expensive. And that goes back to national policies, starting with cheap oil and subsidies for the centralized production of cheap calories. Thankfully, there are other policies recently put in place to make it easier for all families to afford fresh fruits and vegetables. All of our farmers' markets accept WIC food vouchers, Food Stamps, and EBT, and this year we've been able to give double value coupons to EBT users. We also provide nutrition education, to help families shop smartly. Every parent should be able to feed their family fresh, healthy food. We're working towards that.
3. How has being based in Providence helped Farm Fresh RI's development?
We're in the middle of an incredibly diverse food producing region. Rhode Island is mild enough for zesty salad greens and warm enough for tomatoes that can compete with anything I ate growing up in New Jersey. The inland northwest is great for apples and asparagus. Seafood is our signature, but we also we've also got nationally ranked vineyards along the coast and a thriving milk cooperative.
It's amazing to me how easy it is for us to work with all of Rhode Island's food producers. Being in Providence puts us at the center of it all. As we were developing strategies to address why fresh food wasn't accessible to more people, it only made sense to be based in Providence. The farmers' markets are the most visible part of this strategy. We've gone from running the one Downtown market to managing eight neighborhood markets in five years.
I see food as very much a part of the city's creative culture, and we really profit from being with other creative folks who call Providence home. This inventiveness runs through our work with incredible chefs looking for incredible ingredients, with the silkscreen artists we hire for distinctive posters each year, and with interns from the city's colleges who bring new perspectives. The staff at Farm Fresh is a small, energized bunch, but there's nothing that beats Rhode Island's small size and Providence's spunk.
4. Compare Rhode Island's support for local food to other states you're familiar with.
Some colleagues who work on farm-to-chef programs in Boston recently visited Providence. They were blown away by the level of interest, commitment, and action among Providence chefs to making connections with local farms. But even before there was Farm Fresh, restaurants were buying local as a normal part of business. It speaks not only to the unmatched flavor of local food, but also to the pride people have in Rhode Island.
When Farm Fresh RI started, one of the first needs we identified was a public database of local farms, foods they grow, and where to buy them. Our website laid the groundwork for eaters and chefs to easily find local food. It got 75,000 visitors this month, a new record for us.
Market Mobile took the same website a step further by allowing businesses to buy local online. This week, just six months into the project, chefs bought a record $6,000 of local food via Market Mobile. Farm Fresh's embrace of technology and creative design have allowed us to leapfrog ahead of regions that have had active Buy Local campaigns for much longer.
5. Where do you envision our local food movement being five years from now?
In five years there will be a permanent, indoor year-round Providence Public Market. More restaurants, groceries, schools, and hospitals will be using Rhode Island-grown food. There will be more local production of foods and drinks, and there will be incubator kitchens to help business startups get off the ground.
This may all sound optimistic, but agriculture is one of the fastest-growing sectors of the Rhode Island economy. These next five years will be key in rebuilding the market, distribution, and processing infrastructure. Our job is to make sure that getting local food is easy and efficient and it's the norm of doing business. The hardest part can be as simple as introducing people who should already know each other. Creating community around good food is what Farm Fresh is all about.