By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — The first draft of Rhode Island’s all-encompassing food plan will be released in January.
After three months as the state’s first director of food strategy, Sue AnderBois has met with 250 members of Rhode Island’s food, farming and fishing sectors. As a result, the plan will address three main topics: economic development; agriculture and fisheries; and health and access.
Compost and waste reduction
The objective is to divert food scrap from landfills and deliver unconsumed food to those in need. To keep food from spoiling on grocery-store shelves, Rhode Island is looking to Stop & Stop for ideas. The grocery-store chain freezes meat before it expires. Food banks and pantries then pick the meat up from a central storage facility.
“This part of the food system is relatively undeveloped in Rhode Island," Leo Pollock, network director for the Rhode Island Food Policy Council and co-founder of The Compost Plant, said during an Oct. 4 policy meeting of state agencies and food-related NGOs.
Pollock suggested that Rhode Island consider a food-management system run by paid professionals rather than volunteers, to increase reliability while fulfilling the economic development goals of the state's food plan.
Like other New England states, Rhode Island has a shortage of options for managing food scrap. Earth Care Farm in Charlestown is the only compost facility, while a new food digester operation near the Central Landfill in Johnston expects to open for business soon.
Rhode Island, Pollock said, needs to think about decentralized infrastructure so the state can handle both the diversion of food scrap and the production of compost.
AnderBois noted that Rhode Island's composting law requires facilities that generate large volumes of food scrap to divert, donate or compost their leftovers, but that having only one facility means that most institutions don't need to comply.
“I think we are technically in compliance (with the compost law) because there’s no place for people to send their food waste here, which is the worst way to be in compliance,” she said. “So how do we incentivize whatever infrastructure needs we have?”
To find answers, Pollock and other council members met with New England’s office of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Center for Eco Technology in Pittsfield, Mass., the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) and other state agencies, businesses, and nonprofits.
One of the primary goals of the Ocean State's food plan is to increase sales of locally caught seafood. Ken Ayars, chief of the state Division of Agriculture, said the seafood sector is 10 to 15 years behind the agricultural sector in its retail operations, such as farmers markets. An obstacle, he said, is the lack of seafood processing facilities.
“That’s an area of natural focus, tapping into the large amount of seafood that we land,” Ayars said.
DEM director Janet Coit said filling the need with new filet machines and other fish-processing businesses would lower seafood prices and create jobs. Expanding fish processing also helps push the food-waste industry to add composting operations and anaerobic digesters.
Rhode Island has had one of its best years ever for seafood sales, in particular squid. As of October, this year's catch had already surpassed that of 2015.
Health equity zones will focus on food and food insecurity in 10 regions across Rhode Island.
Food access and health equity zones are about understanding the different needs of the communities, said Chris Ausura of the state Department of Heath.
“Food access is not just going to the grocery store. It’s very disparate across the state whether you can grow food in your own yard, or find a place to go catch a fish or go hunting or trapping if you want to live off of the land,” Ausura said.
Pollock said improving access to healthy food is best achieved through grassroots efforts.
“Rather than trying to plan where a full-service grocery store should be placed, (we should be asking) what are community needs around food? What are access needs and how does the stakeholder listen to that and respond to it?” he said.
A health equity zone planning committee is scheduled to meet Oct. 25 for training and networking. The Rhode Island Convention Center is scheduled to host a health equity summit on Dec. 8.
Regulatory and technical assistance
AnderBois said she has been hearing from the local food sector about challenges with regulations. Her solution is to find the most common issues, figure out their purpose and look for remedies.
“Let’s name them, figure out what they are, figure out what you want to do and how we are going to do it.” AnderBois said.
Coit suggested focusing on complying with new federal food safety laws in addition to existing state food safety regulations that may “impose obstacles that are very difficult for our small agricultural enterprises to get over or under or around.”
Members of the Rhode Island Department of Health (DOH) recently visited Maryland, Delaware and Virginia to learn how the food laws will impact those states and how they prepared for them.
Ken Payne, chairman of the Food Policy Council, said the state needs to hire more people to enact and enforce regulations. “If there aren’t the bodies to do the work it’s very hard to make the system function,” he said.
Ernest Julian of the DOH said food businesses struggle to hire, train and retain employees that help them comply with health regulations.
“It’s a knowledge issue of getting them into training, getting them to put procedures in place so that we don’t find the same things over and over again," he said. "It’s all about prevention, making sure that systems are in place so that we are not finding the problems."
The goal is to encourage compliance with incentives, but in the food-service sector managers turnover every nine months and staff leaves every three to four months. Low wages and language barriers also keep turnover high.
Julian suggested the creation of a food-service temp agency to help businesses with staff needs, especially during periods of high demand.
Coit said DEM has a chronic shortage of staff in its agriculture division, with 18 employees responsible for regulatory compliance, outreach, promotion, animal care, invasive plants and wetland protection.
“We couldn’t get anything done without partners, but we are also severely understaffed in what we hope to accomplish in the fisheries and agriculture area,” she said.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) serves more than 100,000 Rhode Island households. Sales were up 30 percent at farmers markets this year, compared to 2015. Farm Fresh Rhode Island credits the increase to a mailing to SNAP recipients.
DEM and DOH are developing a website to share information about the food plan and receive ideas from the public. The website will include testimonials and stories about farmers. Some of the stories will focus on food and social justice issues and be co-produced with the Food Policy Council.
Steve Carey of the Department of Education's child nutrition program wants help raising awareness about meal programs, such as student lunch and after-school food choices.
Aleatha Dickerson of the Division of Elderly Affairs also would like assistance to increase awareness of food programs for senior citizens.
Help for farmers
The Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) has launched a national roll-out of a free legal service program for farmers and food businesses, food nonprofits and community organizations connected to the food sector. CLF will assist with real estate, leases and other legal needs
Rhode Island farmers and food entrepreneurs can reach out to Sumana Chintapalli to learn more.
The preliminary food plan is expected to be released at a food-systems summit at the University of Rhode Island on Jan. 17. The event is the reincarnation of the Food Forum put on for several years by Farm Fresh Rhode Island.