Ambitious Vision for Region’s Food Future

The Mount Hope Farm Farmers Market in Bristol is one of about a dozen markets being held in Rhode Island this winter. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News)

The Mount Hope Farm Farmers Market in Bristol is one of about a dozen markets being held in Rhode Island this winter. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News)

Report claims New England could produce 50 percent of the sustenance it consumes by 2060, but current sustainability policy largely neglects the importance of locally sourced food.

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

Food Solutions New England, a network that serves as a “convener, cultivator and champion” for the region’s food system, has an ambitious goal: have 50 percent of the food New England consumes come from the six-state region by 2060. This lofty goal is frequently cited by bureaucrats, foodies and farmers, but how do we get there? Can we get there?

Currently, about 90 percent of the food consumed in New England comes from outside the region, according to a 48-page report released last year by the regional collaborative network coordinated by the University of New Hampshire. This imported food is supplied by a global system that produces abundant, and often cheap, sustenance that comes with plenty of hidden costs: displaced populations; low-paid farmers, fishermen and factory workers; a host of negative environmental impacts; and public-heath concerns.

Lisa Raiola, the founder and visionary behind Rhode Island’s new culinary incubator, Hope & Main, embraces the report’s vision but doesn’t believe there is an adequate long-term plan currently in place to get us there.

“I like the big goal. It’s important that we strive to get there,” she said. “How we get there is a whole other discussion. Our food future is not a longer version of the present.”

Until the mid-19th century, New England was covered with farms, as most people in the region fed themselves by growing and producing their own food.

Today, the service industry, tourism, technology, medicine and higher education have replaced farming and fishing as the region’s driving economic forces. Development, much of it catered to these sectors — i.e., the Dallas-based developer seeking to build privatized student housing on a former Route 195 parcel in Providence — dominates a growing part of the region’s landscape.

New England lacks a hearty supply of local food largely because the amount of land producing it has dwindled, significantly. The region has some 14.5 million people, but only about 5 percent of its land, less than 2 million acres, is farmed. Commercial fishing, once a major industry here, is struggling to survive.

Since the 1940s, Rhode Island alone has lost more than 80 percent of its farmland to development and forest regrowth. Today, less than 7 percent, about 40,000 acres, is agriculturally active. In Massachusetts, from 1999 to 2005, land was developed at a rate of 22 acres a day, converting some 40,000 acres of farmland and forest to residential use, according to a 2009 Mass Audubon report.

Sustainable communities
Among the many concerns associated with a changing climate and feeding a growing population, the issue of food security must rank near the top. But developing a resilient food system isn’t adequately addressed in New England sustainability policy or by legislative action.

In Rhode Island, where less than 5 percent of the food consumed is grown or raised locally, the state’s recently drafted sustainability plan mentions the word “farmland” once — “Farmland and forest will surround centers that are infused with greenways and open space.”

Preserving farmland is well and good, but the plan makes no mention of who will be farming this land and how they will make a living if they did. Farms, especially those of the medium- and small-scale variety, operate without the safety net of Big Ag subsidies. They survive on razor-thin margins, and farmers contend with numerous variables outside their control, such as a changing climate and flooding.

In that same sustainability plan, the word “agricultural” appears twice, with little context: “maintaining or expanding the state’s agricultural sector” and “the character of other parts of the community can be preserved, including historic areas, agricultural lands and open space.”

Neither the word “food” nor “farming” appears in the 24-page document entitled “A Sustainable Rhode Island: Three-Year Work Plan 2012-2015.” By contrast, the word “development” appears 96 times, “growth” 34 times and “transportation” 37 times.

The plan’s utopian introduction proclaims: “Rhode Island will balance the needs of its people with the protection of its natural resources. It will be a place where all generations may enjoy natural beauty, clean air and water, a productive economy, an affordable place to live, access to efficient transportation systems, a connection to the past and a sustainable, prosperous future.”

The document then proceeds to ignore how the state’s prosperous future will sustainably feed its population. In fact, this guiding document seems more concerned with growing everything but food, from residential, commercial and industrial development to growth centers that “will be dynamic and efficient centers for development that have a core of commercial and community services, mixed-use development, and natural and built landmarks and boundaries that provide a sense of place.”

Similar sustainability plans and principles in Massachusetts and Connecticut focus on development and gloss over the mere mention of food. A 169-page plan to implement sustainable development in the New York-Connecticut metropolitan area mentions the word “food” twice. In a top-10 list of sustainable development principles for Massachusetts, there is no mention of food.

In fact, most state-sponsored sustainability plans for southern New England focus almost entirely on development and attracting developers.

It’s difficult to foster local food production and consumption when guiding policy fails to acknowledge the important role food plays in creating sustainability. After all, doesn’t sustainable development need to eat sustainable food?

Is there enough land in New England to feed 50 percent of the population? Rich Pederson grows about 2 tons of food annually on three-quarters of an acre in Providence. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

Is there enough land in New England to feed 50 percent of the population? Rich Pederson grows about 2 tons of food annually on three-quarters of an acre in Providence. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

Food insecurity
New England is dependent on other states, most notably California, and countries for food, and this fossil fuel-dependent system will likely become less sustainable over time. Urban farming, farmers markets and community-supported agriculture (CSA) alone won’t make New England more food secure or make prices more affordable.

To reach that often-cited 50 percent mark by 2060 will require much more than marginally funded Buy Local campaigns, holding Agricultural Days at statehouses once a year and making calamari Rhode Island’s official state appetizer.

In fact, serious problems plague New England’s food system. Consumers here buy excessive amounts of refined grains, fats and sugars, and less fruits, vegetables and whole grains, according to the Food Solutions New England report entitled “A New England Food Vision.” Besides the obvious health implications of these choices, refined foods aren’t a regional or local specialty.

Other food-production problems include the high cost of land, especially in Rhode Island, and a lack of it, most notably in the three southern New England states, where 75 percent of the region’s population lives.

The region’s high land values, the decline of coastal fish populations and worldwide competition from large-scale agriculture have conspired to cripple New England’s food system.

New England, like much of the United States, now dines on microwaveable fare, rice that cooks in minutes, various meat helpers and a plethora of other fast foods. Changing entrenched consumer eating habits to include more local food will be difficult, according to Bevan Linsley.

The coordinator for Island Commons, a consortium of stakeholders that supports Aquidneck Island sustainability and which is “trying to be the boots on the ground” in Newport, Middletown and Portsmouth, R.I., for the 50-by-60 vision, sees cost and convenience as two major obstacles that will need to be overcome.

“We put our heads in the sand when it comes to the issue of food because of the convenience factor,” said Linsley, who also manages various Rhode Island farmers markets. “We buy food now looking mostly through the window of price without considering the health consequences of all this sugary, salty, highly processed food.”

The growing popularity of farmers markets has helped energize the local food movement. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News)

The growing popularity of farmers markets has helped energize the local food movement. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News)

Local growth
It’s hard to argue that the popularity of local food during the past decade hasn’t increased. In Massachusetts, the total number of farmers markets rose 36 percent between 2005 and 2012. Rhode Island had 15 farmers markets in 2004; by 2013, there were 55. Connecticut now has some 100 farmers markets held throughout the year, including nearly two dozen this winter.

To strengthen, support and better manage the growing demand for local food, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island have all created food policy councils, whose mission is to craft plans that address the need to build sustainable food systems.

But despite this growing taste for local food, can this movement really be expected to feed half of the New England population in the next 45 years?

To reach that desired level of local production will first and foremost require a strong political will. It will require simplifying food-safety regulations and cutting back on the red tape, but without neutering regulation. It will mean making land-use policy serve the food system rather than development. It will require better coordinating the work of the many agencies, organizations and universities with fingers in the New England food pie.

There will need to be a strong commitment to addressing the practical needs of small and mid-sized growers and producers. Financial barriers for people who come from food and farming backgrounds but don’t have access to the necessary capital to break ground will need to be removed. It will require private and public money to better connect producers with consumers.

It will mean helping small- and medium-scale meat producers with transportation and storage logistics. The region will need more USDA-certified slaughterhouses, and the region’s food hubs will need to continue to broaden their reach.

It will mean helping farmers develop accessory uses for their land to supplement their income. It will require teaching students the importance of food and nutrition. It will mean funding and supporting low-income food-assistance programs, as about 11 percent of the New England population lives in poverty. It will mean making farmers markets more approachable to at-risk populations.

It will mean making sure the region’s food-production strengths, such as cranberry bogs, acres of wild blueberries, apple orchards, pastureland and the sea, are taken advantage of but not abused. It will mean making sure such topics as energy, composting and aquaculture are part of the discussion.

It will mean the University of Rhode Island, once known as the State Agricultural School and originally established as a land-grant institution, will need to stop tearing up valuable farmland to create more parking.

“We’re going to need to grow a lot more food and to do that we’re going to need every piece of land available,” said Greg Gerritt, a longtime Providence-based environmental/social justice activist. “And we can’t start clearing forests to do that. Everyone’s going to have to have a garden, and Rhode Island’s turf farms are eventually going to have to grow food.”

To feed 50 percent of the population by 2060 — Census figures project New England will have 15 million to 16 million people by then — “A New England Food Vision” estimates the region will need about 6 million acres of agricultural land — a threefold increase that would approach 1945 levels.

The report makes it clear that it is not a plan, but rather a vision that explores what could happen if New England was to commit to supporting sustainable food production. If the region did, the report projects that by 2060 New England would be able to grow/produce most of its vegetables, half of its fruit, some of its grain and dry beans, and all of its dairy, beef and other animal products.

Currently, New England produces about half of the dairy products consumed in the region, less than half the vegetables (mostly sweet corn and potatoes), a quarter of the fruit, and 2.5 percent of cereals, beans, vegetable oils, sugar and beverages, according to “A New England Food Vision.”

About 5 percent of beef and small amounts of poultry and pork are now produced in New England. The region’s fishermen catch almost as much seafood as New Englanders consume, but large exports and large imports complicate the picture, according to the report.

Cost concerns
Thanks to Big Ag, high-fructose corn syrup, chemical preservatives, factory farms and chain restaurants, the foods most New Englanders now eat differ little from those consumed across the rest of the country.

Compared to locally sourced food, this processed food is cheaper, both economically and nutritionally. Local food is typically more expensive, largely because of the economies of scale. This cost discrepancy between local food, which is healthier for both humans and regional economies, and mass-produced feed impacts local growers/producers, middle-income families and at-risk populations.

“Scale is the enemy,” said Raiola, whose Warren, R.I., nonprofit provides low-cost access to shared-use commercial kitchens and other industry-related resources to help entrepreneurs jump-start local food businesses. “Small is hard. How do you make it affordable? For a local salsa maker, cans of tomatoes from Sysco cost less than the farmer’s down the street. How much are customers willing to pay?”

In southeastern Massachusetts, that amount is little more than $5, according to a 2014 Southeastern Massachusetts Food Security Network assessment. Bristol, Norfolk and Plymouth counties have some 1,700 farms, with nearly 110,000 acres of farmland, that produce about $157 million annually in market value. The region’s residents spend $5.02 per person annually on direct-market purchases of local food, according to the 126-page assessment.

The Southeastern Massachusetts Food Security Network is coalition of food pantries, farms, foundations and social service agencies working together to promote local food security: “a situation in which all community residents obtain a safe, culturally acceptable, nutritionally adequate diet through a sustainable food system that maximizes community self-reliance and social justice.”

“Food security is the main issue,” said Stephanie Reusch, the part-time coordinator for the Network. “Everyone needs food, but food is not a spending priority in this country. We’d rather spend money on material things like cars. Our culture doesn’t value food in the same way Europe does.”

U.S. families spend an average of $151 a week on food, according to the Network’s assessment. In fact, Americans, on average, spend the lowest percentage of income worldwide on food.

Increasing the amount of food New England produces, sells and consumes will most certainly require a concerted effort to educate consumers about the health, environmental and economic benefits of eating locally sourced food. It will mean increasing the region’s collective understanding of food and how it’s produced.

“The corporate messaging efforts that food should be cheap are powerful,” Reusch said. “It’s going to take quite an effort to build up the local food economy.”

Vertical leap
David Dadekian, founder of Eat Drink RI, and a 2014 Rhode Island Foundation Innovation Fellowship recipient, wants to create a year-round marketplace in Providence that would be similar to Quincy Market in Boston, Pike Place Market in Seattle or Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia.

He believes a centralized culinary hub would boost Rhode Island’s economy, increase the overall health of the population and reduce the state’s carbon footprint.

The Rhode Island Foundation awarded Dadekian $300,000 to start putting his idea into action. The fellowship was granted with the goal of improving Rhode Island’s economy. Although his project is still in its beginning stages, Dadekain has begun scouting possible locations and has hired a planner.

“If you look at what’s been going on over the last ten years, one of the only sectors in the economy of Rhode Island that has really grown is farming, restaurant food, and things all across the food spectrum,” Dadekian told ecoRI News in September. “Put all the food aspects together its been a dramatic growth, especially in the local food part of it.”

This proposed vertical-farming tower to be built in Singapore would be 26 stories high, more than half its surface area would be covered by native vegetation, and solar panels would generate about 40 percent of the building’s energy needs. Could a similar vertical-farming structure be built on some of the I-195 land in Providence? (T.R.Hamzah & Yeang Sdn.Bhd.)

This proposed vertical-farming tower to be built in Singapore would be 26 stories high, more than half its surface area would be covered by native vegetation, and solar panels would generate about 40 percent of the building’s energy needs. Could a similar vertical-farming structure be built on some of the I-195 land in Providence? (T.R.Hamzah & Yeang Sdn.Bhd.)

Raiola, a fellow advocate of growing the local food economy, supports Dadekian’s vision, which blends nicely with her work at Hope & Main, but she believes Rhode Island and the rest of New England needs to “think bigger” when it comes to food.

“A little farmhouse with a fence and chickens is not the practical way to provide food for half the New England population,” Raiola said. "There’s no warm and fuzzy way to get there. I don’t know if it can be done through traditional farming. All the incentives are with Big Ag.”

One of Raiola’s “radical” food ideas is using some of Providence’s reclaimed I-195 land to build a vertical farm. “It would be model for all of New England,” she said. “It would be an urban living space with agriculture. It would attract funding and tourism. Everyone would see it from the highway — a living-learning experiment that could be the future of local food.”

In fact, Raiola believes technology holds many of the answers to producing more food locally.

“We’re becoming more urban,” she said. “We need closed systems, and vertical farming, for one, is integrated in the ways we live. We need a combination of agriculture and tech that won’t scare people and will make sense to people.”

Linsley also believes we need to think differently about how we increase local food consumption and how we better communicate the vital role food plays in creating sustainable communities. She believes we should start by creating a constituency — a well-organized, coordinated network that isn’t duplicating efforts — that cares passionately about local agriculture and understands the challenges associated with creating a regional food system.

“Incredibly subsidized crops have led to cheap, nasty foods that we are now addicted to,” Linsely said. “We need to build a network of community gardens that show kids how to grow food. They’ll eat the fruits and vegetables they grow. But we have to teach food education.”

Rebuilding our regional food economy from fast and cheap to sustainable and healthy is going to require, as Raiola said, “thinking outside the farm.”