Innovation Ecosystem

What is the best recipe for success in RI when it comes to food, nutrition?

New statewide food strategy, to be released on May 17, seeks to create a unified vision of Rhode Island’s food sector, despite the tensions from competing narratives

Photo by Richard Asinof

Sue AnderBois, Rhode Island's first director of Food Strategy, talks at a community outreach event at the William D'Abate Elementary School in Providence.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 4/3/17
As Rhode Island prepares to launch its first statewide food strategy, there is a tension between how the food industry sector is promoted as an economic development tool and the reality that the lack of access to healthy, nourishing food for many in the state continues to drive health and educational disparities.
Will the conservative Republican idea that the poor are somehow undeserving and that there needs to be work requirements attached to Medicaid benefits and SNAP benefits prevail? Will the R.I. General Assembly refocus its investment policies around access to healthy housing and access to healthy food as the best way to promote better educational and health outcomes, with a higher ROI? Will CommerceRI underwrite the structural repairs need to the former Shooters site on the Providence waterfront to facilitate the planned market hub by Eat Drink RI to move forward? At what point will the governor and the R.I. General Assembly make the connection that continued investments in environmental protection for Narragansett Bay are the secret sauce when it comes to future economic development?
The truth that ACE high school senior Janice Rodriguez spoke about the dilemma of eating breakfast, even if it was junk food, versus going without breakfast because of the cost barriers, is a truth not often heard by education policy makers.
In turn, the challenge issued by Ana Novais, who countered the idea expressed that there were not enough resources to around, instead saying that there were plenty of resources, the problem was the way those resources were being invested, was also a truth that often escapes health care delivery policymakers.

PROVIDENCE – When it comes to promoting access to locally grown food and better nutrition in Rhode Island, there are a smorgasbord of competing narratives, offering distinct choices, much like frequent changes in the spring weather, moving from wind to sleet to snow to rain and back to sun again.

On the more affluent side of the aisle, there was the recent feature story in The Boston Globe Magazine, published online on March 30, with the headline, “Where to eat and what to order in Providence: Dine [and sip] like a champion in Rhode Island’s capital, where the culinary talent and fresh ingredients are locally grown.”

The story by Jamie Coelho, an associate editor at Rhode Island Monthly, began with a recommendation for visitors to indulge in a $49, four-course dinner at the restaurant Birch, across from Trinity Repertory Company, where the chef, Ben Sukle, had recently been named a 2017 James Beard Award finalist. [One of the pioneering Rhode Island restaurants in the farm-to-table movement, Local 121, located just down the street from Birch, closed its doors on March 11, after a 10-year run.]

Both sides now
Waiting in line to be seated at a table at a pricey restaurant, however, is a far different experience than waiting for weeks or even months to receive or renew Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP benefits.

In Rhode Island, where 20 percent of children live in poverty and some 59,000 children are receiving SNAP benefits, there was some relative “good news” for many who live on the down-and-out side of the state’s mean streets: the long wait in applying for and receiving SNAP benefits has finally begun to decline.

The six-month backlog in the number of pending SNAP cases, caught up in the Deloitte software snafu that caused the botched roll out of the $364 million Unified Health Infrastructure Project, has dropped by 26 percent in the last month, moving from 2,692 on Feb. 28 to 1,998 on March 30, according to Eric Beane, the acting director of the R.I. Department of Human Services, in a March 31 news release.

Buying from local farmers
Browsing the two long corridors of local farmers’ stands at the Pawtucket Wintertime Market on Saturday morning on April 1, crowded with customers representing a wide range of ages and demographics despite the spare offerings between growing seasons, provided a third perspective of the local food enterprise. Here SNAP recipients can shop and double their value in purchasing locally grown produce, including carrots, potatoes, onions, squash, cheeses, honey, locally caught fish, and locally made bread.

The Pawtucket Farmers Market is one of seven wintertime farmers markets coordinated by Farm Fresh Rhode Island, including Bristol, Middletown, North Kingstown, South Kingstown, Warren and Woonsocket.

Food on the move
For many folks, however, just getting to a local farmers market can prove to be a task too far, so the R.I. Public Health Institute has been the driving force behind Food on the Move, a program to bring fruits and vegetables to local communities.

One such community stop this spring, summer and fall will be the William D’Abate Elementary School on Kossuth Street in the heart of Olneyville, on Tuesday afternoons, from 3:45 p.m. to 7 p.m., beginning April 11.

Food on the Move also offers the opportunity for SNAP recipients to double their money when purchasing fresh fruits and vegetables.

At a community forum held on March 22 at the school, entitled “The Future of Food in Rhode Island,” sponsored in part by the R.I. Public Health Institute, ConvergenceRI caught up with Amy Nunn, the institute’s executive director.

Food on the Move is the gold standard when it comes to building on evidence-based public health interventions around nutrition outcomes, because the concept is based upon two randomized trials, Nunn explained.

The data, she continued, focused on eating behaviors, showed that bringing fresh fruits and vegetables to where people live, with increased access and reduced costs, does change healthy eating habits.

The Institute’s program is connected with the ongoing efforts to create health equity zones in Rhode Island, recognizing that Food on the Move often serves communities and neighborhoods that are facing disparate health outcomes, exacerbated by food insecurity as well as fast-food swamps.

Undeserving poor?
Nunn told ConvergenceRI that while the grants for Food on the Move had been recently renewed for another four years, the federal funding for the SNAP program might be in jeopardy because of threatened cuts to the budget under the proposed Trump budget.

In response, Nunn said that she was working to see if the program to double the value of SNAP incentives could be underwritten at the state level, something that other states around the nation are considering.

“It would be nice to see that happen,” Nunn said. One of the ideas under discussion is that Food on the Move might become one of the beneficiaries of the tax on sugar-laden soft drinks, in order to support the initiative that supports healthy eating behaviors, according to Nunn.

The big picture
On May 17, Agriculture Day in Rhode Island, the final version of the state’s report on Food Strategy will be released. Public comment on the strategy closed on March 24.

The report, coordinated by the state’s first director of Food Strategy, Sue AnderBois, has an ambitious agenda.

Here is the way the strategy project is framed on the RelishRhody.org website:

“Rhode Island is known for its agriculture, food and premier eateries. Our local food sector is often cited as an area of economic strength ripe for growth. It supports more than 60,000 jobs and feeds tourism and quality of life. Last year, our restaurants captured more than $2 billion in sales. And in 2016, our delicious local food and eateries catapulted Rhode Island to the top 52 places in the world to visit, according to The New York Times. Rhode Island is a ‘foodie’ paradise, and food is an integral part of our social fabric.

The proposition continued: “We are also leading the nation in food-system planning and innovation – spurred on by a growing demand for fresh, locally grown food among consumers. Unlike elsewhere nationally, the number of farms in Rhode Island is on the rise, and the state boasts a thriving young farmer network.

“We top the rankings in the percent of our farms owned by beginning farmers and those selling directly to consumers. And our abundant and diverse commercial fisheries are feeding the world. In 2015, 100 million pounds of seafood was landed in Rhode Island – with an export value over $1 billion.”


A healthy tension

AnderBois, who was also a sponsor of the community outreach event at D’Abate Elementary School, answered ConvergenceRI’s questions around the potential conflict between promoting the food economy and combating food insecurity, a divide between those who can afford to eat out in expensive restaurants and those who struggle with food insecurity on a daily basis.

“The point of the strategy,” AnderBois said, “is to show that they don’t have be in conflict: you can have both, addressing both food insecurity and providing fresh produce and [support a thriving] good economy.”

Our goal with the food strategy, AnderBois continued, “is to make sure that good healthy, delicious local food is available to all Rhode Islanders, regardless of socio-economic status.”

Further, AnderBois explained: “One of the things we try and do in the strategy is to really show that food insecurity is also an economic development issue. Vigorous research has shown that students don’t perform as well when there is less access to food; there is a higher rate of absenteeism.”

Kids, AnderBois said, “are not able to learn as well when they are hungry. The same goes for workers.”

The future is bright
The sixth annual Eat Drink RI Festival will kick off on April 26, offering a panoply of events that showcase the best of the culinary world in Rhode Island, featuring farmers, chefs, bartenders, food and drink artisans.

The celebration includes a number of events, including:

Dinner by Dames, on Thursday, April 27, will bring together a group of Rhode Island’s most talented female chefs and bartenders for a multi-course dining event, to be held at the brand new Skyline at Waterplace in downtown Providence. The event will serve as a benefit for AIDS Care Ocean State.

On Friday, April 28, the celebration will feature an expanded “Truck Stop” to benefit the Rhode Island Community Food Bank, featuring 21 vendors. The event will showcase the excellence and variety of Rhode Island’s mobile restaurants while benefiting an organization dedicated to ending hunger.

New to this year’s festival, Eat Drink RI is partnering with the Point Street Reading Series for a trio of food-author readings and signings, featuring award- winning writer David Leite, local writer/photographer Christine Chitnis, and James Beard Award Best Chef Northeast Semi-Finalist Evan Mallett.

The efforts by Eat Drink RI to rehab the former Shooters site on the Providence waterfront by India Point Park into a market hub for the state’s local food artisans remain in limbo, as negotiations continue with the R.I. Department of Environmental Management, the owner of the site, over who will pay for structural improvements to the property.

With all the willingness to invest millions of dollars in state resources to promote commercial real estate development in downtown Providence and on the former Route 195 land, does it seems somewhat odd, given the upcoming launch of the new statewide food strategy, not to be able to find the financial resources to support the development of the proposed market hub, particularly with the construction of the new pedestrian bridge?

Nourishing big ideas
The Academy for Career Exploration hosted its second annual conference, “EduHealth: Advancing Equity in Education,” on March 29 at the Providence Public Library, asking the question: how can leaders in education, industry, and community work together to positively impact the social determinants of education in the 21st century?

Not surprisingly, the focus of a panel discussion explored the geographic neighborhood factors that impact the quality of education, including: access to quality health care, proper diet and nutrition, and the availability of fresh foods – and how they affected a student’s performance in school but also their future economic opportunities.

The panel featured Ana Novais, executive director of the Health Division of Community, Family Health and Equity, Taino Palermo, program director of Community Development, Roger Williams University, Brian Hull, director of Economic Opportunity for the City of Providence, Eliza Dexter Cohen, food access coordinator at the R.I. Public Health Institute, Janice M. Rodriquez, a senior at the Academy for Career Exploration, and Steve Osborn, the innovation chief at the R.I. Department of Education.

Novais framed the discussion, saying that public health cannot be about health, insulated from all the other conditions that exist, connecting equity in education to housing, nutrition, transportation, and nutrition.

But it was Rodriguez who pinpointed basic truths behind the problems around access to healthy food and nutrition. It was not a lack of awareness of healthy eating habits, but the cost barriers. She included herself in the equation, sharing that there were days that she had breakfast, and other days when she didn’t receive any nourishment.

Rodriguez said she and her friends often find themselves eating Dunkin Donuts, Doritos and Arizona, what she termed bodega food. The choice is to eat the junk food or go hungry.

“A kid who doesn’t have consistent nourishment, particularly breakfast,” she said, is more likely to repeat a grade. In contrast, Rodriguez continued, being able to eat a nourishing breakfast leads to better behaviors and lower levels of depression.

“We need to focus on the simple question of nourishing ourselves,” she said, to change our economic productivity.

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