Innovation Ecosystem

Cornucopia or conundrum: telling the story of food in RI

New report seeks to define the food sector in terms of public health, economic and jobs potential, and access to healthy food

Photo by Richard Asinof

At the Sankofa Market on July 27, from left: Adeline Newbold, Julius Searight [founder of Food4Good], and Raffini and Amirah Nurddin, who is holding a fresh-picked squash.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 8/1/16
The release of a study of the Rhode Island Food System, combined with the publishing of a comprehensive report on food insecurity in the West End of Providence, provide important bookends to efforts now underway to develop an overall food strategy for Rhode Island as a tool of economic development and public health.
How does sustainability fit into the equation for defining the food strategy for Rhode Island, particularly for farmland and water resources and even sources of nutrient? Does Rhode Island need to consider a systems approach? Is there a potential conflict between how a local community develops strategies to overcome food insecurity and the more corporate vision of developing the food industry sector in Rhode Island as a tool of economic development? Will CommerceRI choose to invest in the development of the proposed Central Market on the Providence waterfront? How will the state seek to protect honeybees in Rhode Island from potentially dangerous pesticide and herbicides as part of its food strategy? How is climate change affecting the fish populations in Narragansett Bay?
When President Barack Obama recently signed into law new federal regulations to oversee the labeling of genetically modified food, it overrode the ability of Vermont to have its own labeling standard for GMO foods, which went into effect on July 1. Instead of clarifying what the regulations around labeling should be, many food advocates believe that the federal law will muddy the waters around labeling for consumers, making it harder to determine what is actually in food being purchased.
The new federal regulations, which will take some time to promulgate and take effect, promise not to end the debate around GMO food and their relationship to herbicide and pesticide use, but sharpen the focus of that debate.
In the meantime, more and more research is now focused on the microbiome and how it may be disrupted by different toxins, becoming a causative factor in many chronic diseases, such as obesity and diabetes. Stay tuned.

PROVIDENCE – The R.I. Food Policy Council released its baseline analysis of the Rhode Island Food System on July 25, before a gathering of about 50 food sector enthusiasts, advocates and government officials at The Rhode Island Foundation.

The work, prepared by Karen Karp and Partners, entitled, “Update to the R.I. Food Assessment: 2011-2016 and Beyond,” offered a detailed 69-page documentation of the facts and figures that sought to define the current food system in Rhode Island.

The report outlined the current food landscape as well as detailing food insecurity in the state, identifying the gaps in efforts to increase the state’s economy.

The speakers at the event included: First Gentleman Andy Moffit; Neil Steinberg, president and CEO of The Rhode Island Foundation; Ken Payne, chair of the R.I. Food Policy Council; Janet Coit, director of the R.I. Department of Environmental Management, and Sue AnderBois, the state’s first director of Food Strategy, appointed by Gov. Gina Raimondo in May.

AnderBois said that she was hard at work putting together an initial draft of a comprehensive food plan. The new report will serve as a baseline of analysis and data for her plan.

Stakeholder engagement
On Jun 27, AnderBois talked and answered questions with a group of some 50 stakeholders in the food sector, at an event organized by the Social Enterprise Greenhouse.

Many of the discussion points raised by stakeholders at that event focused on connecting food policy with the needs of the community, stressing educational activities and the need for sustainability, beyond defining the parameters of the industry sector as a source of economic activity.

Community vision
A month earlier, in June, the Sankofa Initiative of the West End Housing Development Corporation, with support from the R.I. Department of Health’s Center for Health Equity and Wellness, published its 122-page comprehensive analysis of “West End Food Insecurity Assessment,” creating a community baseline analysis of residents’ food security needs.

The Sankofa Initiative efforts have sought to expand community farming efforts through the development and cultivation of an additional 16,500 square feet of agricultural space on land owned by the community development corporation in the West End.

The new plot of land is immediately adjacent to the new 50-unit, $15 million affordable housing development known as Sankofa Apartments. The new housing development, which is nearing completion, will include a community kitchen, equipment to expand the growing season for urban farmers as well as composting and food storage facilities.

The overarching goal is to create new opportunities for West End residents to grow, market and sell local and culturally appropriate foods – and to create meaningful connections among residents, transforming vacant lots into “a rich and vibrant living, farming and marketing community around the goals of improved health, increased access to health food, and increased economic opportunity,” according to the report. [See link to study below.]

Food hub and market
One of the better-known food sector advocates who attended both the release of the report on the Rhode Island Food Systen and the AnderBois meeting with stakeholders was David Dadekian, the head of Eat Drink RI, an organization that promotes all things culinary in Rhode Island.

Dadekian’s current project is to create a central culinary market and food hub for all Rhode Islanders at the former site of the nightclub Shooters on the Providence waterfront, the current home of the water taxi between Providence and Newport.

On Saturday, Aug. 6, from 2 to 6 p.m., Eat Drink RI will host what it has billed as a “Central Market Preview,” showcasing the products from more than 20 local vendors.

On display will also be the first concept drawings of the proposed Central Market, desgined by Providence’s Union Station.

The new Central Market hub will contain multiple event space, and active market hall for local farm goods, producers and food artisans, including locations for independent locations for restaurants.

The preview event for the Central Market is an effort to build public support for the concept in a way that will stimulate public and private investment in the proposed enterprise, which will require between $1 million and $4.5 million in investments to launch and then scale up, Dadekian told ConvergenceRI in a recent interview.

“The Central Market will basically be a public market, similar to the Reading Market in Philadelphia, serving as a big public market for both residents and tourists, [showcasing] all the great food and drink that Rhode Island has to offer,” Dadekian said.

Dadekian also differentiated the concept of the Central Market from ongoing farmers markets operating in Rhode Island.

“We don’t want to infringe on farmers markets,” Dadekian said. “The Central Market will be a permanent, year-round operation.” At the same time, he said it would be possible to feature a potential storefront in the market for Sankofa and other initiatives.

Dadekian praised the Rhode Island Food System analysis. “I love it,” he said. “It’s a phenomenal document, [even if it’s] a wonky document.”

The new report, he continued, was important for two reasons. First, it was important for AnderBois, in the preparation of her overall food strategy plan, to have some sort of baseline analysis to begin with.

Secondly, Dadekian said, from his perspective, “I’m so immersed in the food industry, I kind of get a little blinded to what has happened over the last five years. We’ve had really good progress during that time. There’s a lot of stuff that we’re ahead of [when compared] to the rest of the country.”

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