Innovation Ecosystem

All trucked up: when food, crime stories go uncovered in Crimetown

Destruction of raised beds at a newly constructed urban farming site in Providence highlights the gap in celebrating the state’s food industry during a time of growing food insecurity

Photo by Richard Asinof

A vandal drove a truck through the fence at the new urban farming site built by the African Alliance of Rhode Island, destroying 10 of 17 raised beds, a crime story unreported by the local news media.

Photo by Richard Asinof

On June 1, Food on the Move, an initiative of the R.I. Public Health Institute, celebrated the expansion of its mobile market program, with funding from the AARP Foundation, at the Dominica Manor, a Providence Housing Authority residential site at 100 Atwells Ave.

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By Richard Asinof
Posted 6/5/17
Consider it a new kind of Providence noir detective story: a new urban farm site is wrecked by vandals in a truck; an innovative program to bring a mobile market of fresh fruits and vegetables to Rhode Island’s food insecure elderly plans to scale up nationally; and the forecast is for dramatic increases in need by “food insecure” children and seniors.
When the National Governor’s Association’s summer meeting convenes in Providence from July 13-17, will Gov. Gina Raimondo showcase any of the innovative programs, such as the Sankofa Community Initiative, Food on the Move, the African Alliance of Rhode Island, or the health equity zones working on food insecurity? What kinds of transportation, if any, will be provided for the governors attending the summer meeting? What citizen’s group will plan a teach-in on sustainability for the governors and their staff attending the summer meeting? Will the R.I. General Assembly consider adding revenue streams to the budget to deal with the pending $178 million budget shortfall? Now that Rhode Island has joined with other states in the United States Climate Alliance, will that change Raimondo’s position on the proposed Burrillville power station?
Call it a rationale for investing in environmental protection, scientific research and greater health protections from toxics.
In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, Frederica Perera argued that toxic exposures are shockingly prevalent and can cross the placenta. “Analysis of biomonitoring data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds dozens of toxic chemicals, pollutants and metals in pregnant women, many of which are also found in cord blood of newborns,” she wrote. “These include pesticides sprayed in inner-city buildings and on crops, flame retardants used in furniture, combustion-related air pollutants from fossil-fuel-burning power plants and vehicles, lead, mercury and plasticizers. All have been shown in epidemiologic studies in the U.S. and elsewhere to be capable of damaging developing brains, especially while babies are exposed in utero or in their early life.”
In addition, a recent study raised the issue of lead as being a potential contributing risk to autism. Baby teeth from children with autism contain more toxic lead and less of the essential nutrients zinc and manganese, compared to teeth from children without autism, according to an innovative study funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, part of the National Institutes of Health. The researchers studied twins to control genetic influences and focus on possible environmental contributors to the disease. The findings, published June 1 in the journal Nature Communications, suggest that differences in early-life exposure to metals, or more importantly how a child’s body processes them, may affect the risk of autism.

PROVIDENCE – Early on Monday morning, May 31, someone drove a truck with malicious intent through the fence surrounding the newly completed garden of 17 raised beds on Prairie Avenue.

The vandal[s] in the truck destroyed 10 of the raised beds in a new urban gardening site being built by Julius Kolawole and the African Alliance of Rhode Island, just before the launch of its first growing season.

The project had simple goals in its effort to reduce what has come to be known as food insecurity: to allow neighbors in walking distance to grow their own healthy, fresh vegetables, and to allow others to grow vegetables to sell in farmers’ markets, according to Kolawole.

“We need help,” Kolawole told ConvergenceRI, who is looking to raise $20,000 to restore the urban farming site to get it back to the starting point, including donations of supplies and volunteer labor. This time, Kolawole continued, there will be boulders surrounding the fence, to deter further truck vandals. [See information below on how to contact Kolawole.]

Food, glorious food
As food and crime stories go in Crimetown, the destruction of 10 raised beds was a small but tragic blip under the radar screen of bigger, more sugar-laden sound bites.

On Friday, June 2, Gov. Gina Raimondo scheduled stops at Allie’s Donuts in North Kingstown and Sweenor’s Chocolates in Wakefield, photo ops that WPRI’s Ted Nesi tweeted about as: “Gov. Raimondo’s Friday looks delicious.”

And, later, in response to a photo showing Raimondo with a tray full of colorful iced doughnuts at Allie’s Donuts, Nesi tweeted: “Bring these to the Assembly and free tuition might pass after all.” Is the way to a legislator’s heart through his or her stomach?

On Thursday, June 1, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza celebrated the opening of the PVD Fest with an outdoors dinner for 320 in Kennedy Plaza, al fresco.

On Wednesday, May 31, Elorza announced the Providence Business Loan Fund had closed on an $850,000 acquisition loan to Farm Fresh RI for the purchase of a 3.2 acre site at 498 Kinsley Ave. to help the nonprofit create a food and agriculture campus that “aligns with [the city’s] urban food economic development strategy that leverages resources to expand not only restaurants but promote light food manufacturing, distribution, startups, food technology and urban production in the city.”

While the city had been responsible for providing the funding for the African Alliance’s raised bed urban farming project, Elorza had not yet reached out to Kolawole or visited the damaged site, according to Kolawole, as of Thursday evening.

The story about the destroyed growing beds has not yet been reported by the local news media, including: The Providence Journal, The Providence Business News, GoLocalProv, RI Future, WPRO, Rhode Island Public Radio, or Channels 12, 10 or 6.

Of course, there were more important stories to cover: changing traffic patterns in Roger Williams Park; the passage of a Community Safety Act by the Providence City Council, and the plans for the elimination of the car tax and what it means for the state budget.

If an urban farming site is destroyed in the forest of buildings known as the Creative Capital, will anyone hear it?

Keep on trucking
On Thursday afternoon, June 1, Food on the Move, an initiative of the R.I. Public Health Institute, held an event at the Dominica Manor, a Providence Housing Authority residential site at 100 Atwells Ave., to showcase the expansion of their efforts to address food insecurity among seniors in Rhode Island.

Unlike the explosive growth in food truck culture, which will be on display during the PVD Fest on Satuday, June 4, featuring more than 20 food trucks from noon to midnight, the Food on the Move program is a mobile market, trucking in fresh fruits and vegetables to numerous sites across Rhode Island, allowing residents to shop in place where they live.

For those shoppers that qualify, Food on the Move doubles the value of SNAP benefits. Food on the Move has now become the largest such program in the nation, and it is on the verge of being replicated in other cities and localities.

For the residents of Dominica Manor, the mobile market is more than just convenience: the residents live in what might be termed a veritable Rhode Island sandwich of both a food desert and a food swamp. There is the food swamp that is Federal Hill, and the food desert that is the lack of a grocery store in easy walking or even driving distance.

The expansion of the Food on the Move is being underwritten in large part by funding from the AARP Foundation; representatives were on hand for the occasion.

The brief presentation was contemporaneously translated into Spanish for the benefit of many of the 50 or so residents attending, ready to shop. A cooking demonstration was also conducted, featuring a pasta primavera made with ingredients from the mobile market. Sue AnderBois, the state’s new director of food strategy, was also on hand, along with representatives of the Providence Housing Authority.

Amy Nunn, the executive director of the R.I. Public Health Institute, explained the strategic context for the Food on the Move initiative, in an interview with ConvergenceRI following the event.

“We are already working with all of the health equity zones of the R.I. Department of Health,” Nunn said. “We anticipate that those programs will continue in coming years.”

With the support of the AARP Foundation, Nunn continued, “We are doubling down on our efforts to serve the elderly, for two specific reasons. First, food insecurity is highly prevalent among older adults over age 55. Approximately 14 percent of older adults are food insecure in Rhode Island at any given time.”

Secondly, Nunn explained, “We know that this intervention is particularly high impact for older adults. We are therefore focusing increasingly more efforts on reaching older adults, as well as children,” the other population for whom this intervention has been particularly important.

Scaling up
In terms of replication and scaling up the Food on the Move program as a national model, Nunn said she believed the program had relevance, locally and nationally. “We serve between 5,000 and 6,000 people per year in Rhode Island,” she said. “We believe we have developed an innovative model that could be replicated in other settings. We are trying to disseminate the results of these programs through their peer review literature, the popular press, and other major outlets to share lessons learned about this important program.”

The Food on the Move initiative has built into its efforts a strong research component to measure its results. The initial efforts were based on two randomized control trials funded by the National Institutes of Health. Moving forward, the money from the AARP Foundation will enable the R.I. Public Health Institute to quantify the impact on the program on older Americans, with the results available for dissemination in 2019.

“Healthy eating is the cornerstone of a healthy lifestyle,” Nunn said, attempting to put the Food on the Move initiative into a broader context. “Moreover, healthy eating is an important component of chronic disease prevention.”

The challenge, she continued, from a public health perspective, is that many people do not have quick and ready access to healthful foods. “Food on the Move aims to respond to this important health challenge by subsidizing the cost of fruit and vegetables for SNAP recipients, and by bringing healthy foods to the food deserts and food swamps across the state of Rhode Island.”

Given that Food on the Move is an innovative approach to providing healthy fruits and vegetables and that it plans to scale up nationally, what will it take to be “seen” by Commerce RI as an economic development strategy to invest in, given the state’s aging demographics?

[Once again, there was no media coverage of the event, save for ConvergenceRI.]

Measuring food insecurity
Earlier in the day on June 1, the Rhode Island Public Health Association held an issue briefing at the New England Institute of Technology campus in East Greenwich on food insecurity and hunger relief programs.

Currently, Rhode Island ranks 19th nationally for the highest risk of food insecurity among seniors, according to the issue brief.

Low food security is experienced by 10 percent of Rhode Islanders, approximately 100,000 residents, according to Kathleen Gorman, director of the Feinstein Hunger Center at the University of Rhode Island. Very low food security afflicts about 5 percent of the state’s population.

Gorman explained: “Food insecurity continues to be problematic for Rhode Island’s children,” resulting in adverse outcomes in health, mental health, cognitive, academic and psycho-social development issues.

Heather Amaral, the director of Meals on Wheels RI, spoke before about 20 people attending the briefing, talking about the important role that her agency plays in delivering ready to eat meals to some 1,500 residents in their homes daily, who are 60 years of age or older.

But the third member of the panel, Rep. Teresa Tanzi, who serves as vice chair of the House Finance Committee as well as a member of the House Committee on Oversight, delivered the stunning news that the budget deficit facing the R.I. General Assembly was far greater than being reported – with devastating results in potential cuts for social and human services program.

A big $175 million doughnut hole in the budget
Tanzi told the attendees that the current estimate being reported is that the state budget has a projected $134 million shortfall. “In reality, it’s closer to $175 million, by my estimate,” she said, creating enormous challenges for the R.I. General Assembly.

Translated, in order to balance the budget and achieve the elimination of the car tax as proposed by House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, with its $26 million in FY 2018 in state revenue needed to be found to replace the lost revenue to cities and towns, social and human services programs will be on the chopping block to find the money to cover the $201 million shortfall – Tanzi’s $175 million deficit projection plus Mattiello’s $26 million loss in revenue as a result of the car tax elimination.

Where will the budget ax fall? In response to a question from WPRI’s Nesi, Mattiello did not offer any specifics on how the state should find the money to pay for the car tax phase out, reporting that: “[Mattiello] hopes that ‘leaner government’ and strong economic growth will help.”

As stunning as the revelation was about the $175 million deficit projection by Tanzi, what she said next, in response to a question by Gorman about the continuing problems with the Unified Health Infrastructure Project, was even more alarming.

“We have a disaster of unknown proportions with the UHIP project,” Tanzi began. “It’s great that we have a budget estimate [from the case estimating conference], but it is predicated on data that cannot be trusted. I don’t feel that we have any certainty about what is going to happen in FY 2018.”

As a result, the increase in need may have been masked, Tanzi continued. “When [R.I. EOHHS and R.I DHS] are reporting that applications are down, I’m not surprised,” she said. “But it is not because the needs are lower.”

Rather, Tanzi contended, the applications are down for things such as SNAP benefits because of the snafus in the application process.

Tanzi told the attendees at the briefing that the UHIP system is not expected to be fully functional for another 14 months – until August of 2018.

Food for thought
Can you connect the dots?

A neighborhood urban farm has its growing beds destroyed by a vandal’s truck, but the crime goes unreported by the local news media in Crimetown.

An innovative program, Food on the Move, a mobile market to address the needs of vulnerable elderly residents, said to number about 140,000 in Rhode Island, prepares to scale up nationally, but the initiative goes unreported by local news media amidst the noise about the growing food hub that is Providence.

Revelations by a state representative serving on the Finance Committee that the actual state budget deficit for FY 2018 is $175 million, $41 million larger than publicized, and the data provided by the state from its case estimating conference is “unreliable,” goes unreported by the local news media because the revelations occurred at a briefing on food insecurity and hunger relief programs.

Editor's Note: For more information about how you can contribute to help rebuild the urban farm site that was destroyed by vandals, please call Julius Kolawole at the African Alliance of RI at 401-331-5535.

Comments

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Steve Maciel

This article is eye-opening. Where are our priorities?

Monday, June 5

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