"Our plan was to identify and address the barriers standing in the way of, say, an Aquidneck potato grower selling to a Providence supermarket."
Rhode Island is an agricultural state. There are hundreds of family-owned and operated farms, dozens of farmers' markets, and a strong regional food culture.
Yet for a long time, the local agricultural community didn't quite have the means to connect with one another. Then in 2004, Farm Fresh Rhode Island was born. Founded by Brown University graduate and local food advocate Louella Hill, Farm Fresh aimed to connect farmers with consumers, ranging from chefs to students to the everyday shopper.
Over the past five years, Farm Fresh has greatly expanded. They have a number of projects in the works including a Farm-to-Chef program, a Farmer's Apprenticeship, and an annual Local Food Fest. I chatted with executive director Noah Fulmer to hear a bit more about the wonderful work that Farm Fresh is doing.
Where did your passion for local food come from? I grew up in the suburbs of central New Jersey. My grandmother had a sprawling kitchen garden, and on visits we'd go harvest everything we needed for lunch. At home, it was the norm on summer evenings to stop at a farmstand with my parents to pick up tomatoes, corn and other ingredients for dinner. It was part of the excitement of summer and it was delicious. Unfortunately, the farm along with many others nearby were sold to become sprawling housing developments. With every new cul-de-sac, I started to question where our food would come from if we kept paving over our farms. Local food seemed like a smart means toward food security, with added benefits for our environment, health and quality of life. If you're looking to make a difference in the world, food is something that touches everyone. We all eat.
Talk a little bit about the development of Farm Fresh. Why did you think it would succeed? If there was a sense that we could succeed, it was because the mainstream food system that was responsible for feeding our country was built on so many inefficiencies. There was and is an incredible opportunity to help build a credible alternative. Our plan was to identify and address the barriers standing in the way of, say, an Aquidneck potato grower selling to a Providence supermarket, because we saw the important role for local farms to play in the environment, health and quality of life of our communities. Everything is so small that [local purchasing is] possible. Many of the farms that sell at our markets are within 20 miles of the city and some are located in the city. This closeness has really allowed for a growing community of farmers and eaters. Rhode Islanders understand the value of our farms because most of us pass by a farmstand or a market in the course of our everyday. And Rhode Island farmers understand the value of our cities because that's where they come to eat, shop and play too.
Farm Fresh has an extensive website. How does the internet play a role in the organization's various programs? Farmers are pros at getting good stuff to grow from the earth, but most small farms don't have their own marketing departments. Inventorying and mapping farms online was the biggest bang for our limited outreach bucks when we were first starting. Small farms were struggling to stay in business. By giving every farm a webpage we could increase their visibility and level the playing field a bit so that local farms had a fighting chance. It's one of the first things we did and one of our most effective platforms.
We have also extended our reach by having very specific resources targeted at wholesale buyers, who feed thousands of people in their own businesses. Last year we added an online ordering system into the site called Market Mobile. The program pools together food from 25 local producers onto one delivery truck and invoice. Last week, Market Mobile served 55 restaurants, schools and grocers. Pretty neat what the Internet can do to make small farms competitive!
One of the big roles of Farm Fresh is creating connections between different members of the food community. How does the organization create and maintain these connections between, say, farmers and chefs or restaurants? Most chefs want the fresh flavors of local food, and they want to support other small businesses in their community. There is a rich diversity of farms, from vegetables to meat in Rhode Island. But farmers and chefs keep almost opposite hours, and so it can be hard to communicate. Using the Local Food Guide website to have 24/7 information online enabled many more chefs to find local food. Likewise, we list restaurants on our site that buy local, and so farmers can be proactive about finding a home for their extra spinach harvest.
We [also] have a yearly networking event called the Local Food Forum. It hosts about 250 farmers, chefs, schools and advocates, and the day focuses purely on making connections for the coming year. In fact, making the local food system thrive is really all about reconnecting people. Rhode Island is a small place and we're simply bringing together people who should already know each other!
Talk a little bit about Farm Fresh's various initiatives to serve low-income and low-access communities. We run farmers markets in five low-income neighborhoods in Providence, Pawtucket and Woonsocket. The markets all accept WIC and SNAP and reach hundreds of families each week. It's not news that healthy food tends to cost more than junk, which unfortunately keeps fresh vegetables out of reach for many families. So we've been lucky to partner with the Wholesome Wave Foundation and the Rhode Island Foundation to double SNAP customers' dollars at our markets. This "Bonus Bucks" program is a win-win: it helps families on SNAP provide more fresh food for their families and every dollar goes to a local farmer. A study just came out that found that people on SNAP are more likely to be obese than people of similar income levels who are not on SNAP, but we hope that new programs like Bonus Bucks will change that.
What is the future of local food in Rhode Island? What is the future of Farm Fresh? Talk about some initiatives you have for this coming year. The Farm Fresh vision is fresh, healthy food for every family. That means continuing to weave local farms back into the entire marketplace, from farmers markets, restaurants and CSAs to grocers, hospitals and schools. What that means is continuing to rebuild lost infrastructure so that local and regional food production is a mainstream source of our food. That's critical if local farms are going to make it in the long run, beyond this lucky moment when the local farms regularly make the front of the Dining section of the New York Times. In Rhode Island what this looks like is refrigerated warehouse space, co-packing kitchens, slaughterhouses and public market spaces that are specifically designed with farmers and eaters in mind.
Anything else you'd like to add about Farm Fresh? We have a lot of fun with what we do at Farm Fresh. Local food is really all about community and the people and places we cherish. We love seeing all of the smiling faces at the farmers markets.
If you find yourself in Rhode Island in early August, I have to say we throw a great party, the Local Food Fest. It's a celebration of the bounty of our local fields and waters, with two dozen of the chefs and farmers we work with paired up and sampling seasonal dishes. It all happens against the backdrop of the ocean at Castle Hill in Newport. It's a pretty spectacular time and a tasty celebration of the people who nourish us everyday!
To learn more about Farm Fresh and their wonderful work, visit their website at farmfreshri.org. Also, check out this great seasonal produce guide!