Rhode Island Celebrates Importance of Local Food

Julius Searight is the founder of Food4Good food truck and mobile soup kitchen. Every $5 dollars earned by the new operation buys two meals for the needy. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

Julius Searight is the founder of Food4Good food truck and mobile soup kitchen. Every $5 dollars earned by the new operation buys two meals for the needy. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

New food truck helps feed those in need

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Saturday was National Food Day and there was plenty to celebrate about Rhode Island’s food industry.

During a downtown food festival, leaders and pioneers in the local food movement explained how they are connecting Rhode Island’s restaurants and culinary arts sector with farming, education, environmentalism, entrepreneurism and social justice.

This effort was best demonstrated by Julius Searight, founder of a new food truck and mobile soup kitchen. Searight’s Food4Good held its grand opening during the Oct. 24 Providence Food Day Festival, selling chicken waffle sandwiches and baked potatoes. Proceeds from food sales are expected to fund about 400 meals a week for the needy.

Searight, 26, grew up as a foster child in Providence and graduated from Johnson & Wales University in 2013. He got the idea for the hybrid food operation after volunteering at local nonprofits and wondering what it was like for his biological mother to get fed.

“I really just saw the need to give back to those in need,” he said.

On the policy side, Mark Huang, the city’s economic development director, said Providence is promoting the “near food” movement to foster business, attract investment and build a more conscientious community.

“If your food is coming within 30 miles of where you live you will definitely be more sensitive to what’s happening to your local ecosystem,” Huang said.

Max Hence, a farmer and food entrepreneur for 20 years, said healthy local food is a right and a tool for transforming society. The owner of Hillandale Farm in Westerly is using education to promote local, sustainably grown food and economic opportunity to students of all ages.

Local farming has been crippled by development, said Hence, before listing some troubling statistics for Rhode Island: 80 percent of farmland has been developed in the past 50 years and 80 percent of remaining farmland is unprotected.

“It’s a problem, but it’s also a huge opportunity,” he said.

In a partnership with the Ayers Foundation, Hence is launching a cooperative food hub that distributes local, organic food within a 15-mile radius of Westerly.

“We believe that competition is good and so is collaboration, working together as one industry for the benefit all Rhode Islanders,” Hence said.

Hence also is working with WhatsGood, a recently launched company that connects local growers with local chefs. CEO, co-founder and Johnson & Wales graduate Matt Tortora has expanded WhatsGood from its base in Rhode Island to nine states.

Tortora noted that the average piece of food travels 1,500 miles and sits three weeks before it’s consumed.

“Why don’t we all just buy the food that’s around us?” Tortora said. “What we need to do is help the volume of food grown locally to start to move into institutions, colleges, universities, hospitals. The best part about it is we don’t have to do much different. We’re already buying food. We just need to buy it from a different source.”

One aid in the food transformation is new state and municipal profiles of local food systems. Created by the Rhode Island Food Policy Council, the booklets and online tools explain terms such as food system and lists the number of local farms, restaurants and food pantries, and the amount of food waste.

David Dadekian of Eat Drink RI said the profiles are intended to start conversions with city and town councils, local planners, students and the public about the local food system, what it is and why you should care.