Updated Report Examines R.I.’s Local Food Needs

By ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — The Rhode Island Food Policy Council (RIFPC), in partnership with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) and the Rhode Island Foundation, recently released a new report on the state’s food system.

The “Rhode Island Food Assessment: 2011-2016 and Beyond" reviews the current food landscape in Rhode Island, highlighting significant growth in local agriculture since the council’s 2011 assessment and citing the need to focus on food security and other gaps to increase the state’s economic vitality.

“This update provides a solid platform and positions Rhode Island as a national leader in food-planning efforts,” RIFPC chairman Ken Payne said at a July 25 event to announce the updated plan.

The report update provides data on food in public health, economic, environmental and community contexts. In May, Sue AnderBois was hired as Rhode Island’s first director of food strategy, to lead efforts to develop the state’s first comprehensive food plan.

This report update, which explores the opportunities and challenges the state faces in strengthening its food system, provides vital baseline information for the development of Rhode Island’s food plan, according to AnderBois.

“With so many important pieces of the food puzzle coming together, from our farms and fisheries to our incubators and partners, we are well positioned to develop an actionable plan that brings Rhode Island’s food picture into clear view and addresses important public health and access goals,” she said.

The 69-page report explores many aspects of the local food system, including retail and access, the environmental impact of local agriculture, food production and distribution, and the state’s regulatory environment. Among the opportunities cited to promote growth are:

Addressing food insecurity to catalyze economic growth. Emergency food needs have doubled since 2009 in Rhode Island, and the number of residents receiving food assistance continues to climb.

Increasing aid for Rhode Island’s growing agricultural sector. Food startups are on the rise, and Rhode Island leads the nation in the percentage of young farmers; yet three-fourths of farms earn less than $20,000 annually.

Increasing local demand, consumption for Rhode Island seafood. As the Ocean State, seafood is a core component of the food system, yet the state’s commercial fishing industry remains largely an export business.

Simplifying the state’s complex web of food safety regulation. Food safety guidelines are vital to public health and a strong food system, but many farm and small businesses in Rhode Island struggle to navigate through the regulatory process.

“There is a tremendous energy in local food and agriculture in Rhode Island,” DEM director Janet Coit said. “It is an area ripe for growth and innovation, and in many areas, Rhode Island is leading — from the percentage of local farms that sell directly to the public to the growth in our young farmer network.”