By REBECCA SEGGEL
For far too many people, especially those living in low-income communities, eating healthy is simply out of reach. Finding fresh food means either traveling significant distances or paying excessive prices for low-quality produce, making healthy choices unaffordable and unattainable.
Without access to healthy foods, communities across the nation, including here in Rhode Island, face risks such as obesity and other chronic health issues. As concerns grow over the worsening obesity epidemic, our first step in facing this crisis starts with helping Rhode Islanders access fresh, locally grown food.
At Farm Fresh Rhode Island, we provide a variety of programs and services aimed at connecting the community with local farmers and food producers. For the past 13 years, Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island has partnered with us, initially by sponsoring our farmers markets and offering free health screenings, and most recently by providing the financial support for our interactive food and nutrition workshops.
As a local food hub, Farm Fresh Rhode Island aims to help improve every aspect of the local food system, which is the path food travels from growing and harvesting to processing, packaging, transporting, selling, eating, and disposing. With Rhode Island’s flourishing food scene, surrounding states’ farmland, and shorter distances for food to travel, we’ve been able to model a sustainable and healthy system to connect farmers and eaters in the New England region.
Our focus extends to both ends of the system, starting with farmers and ending with consumers. Our Market Mobile and Veggie Box programs help New England farmers, fishermen, and small businesses reach more customers. The Market Mobile wholesale distribution service allows food producers to price and sell their own local goods online to wholesale buyers, including restaurants, institutions, grocery stores, buying clubs, and schools.
The platform also provides advantages for both parties. Local farmers receive resources from us to promote and deliver their goods, while wholesalers have direct access to fresh, local produce. Since the program began in 2009, more than 150 wholesalers have bought $15.6 million in food from local farmers through Market Mobile.
On a smaller scale, our fresh produce subscription, Veggie Box, directly gives consumers greater access to locally grown food and provides growers with a consistent sales outlet year-round. Every Veggie Box is packed with seasonal produce and is delivered to workplaces or public pickup sites throughout Rhode Island. Participants get a sneak peek before each delivery to help with meal planning and receive an e-newsletter with tips and recipes for each box.
In 2017, more than $175,000 in local food was bought through the Veggie Box subscription service.
Our focus on connecting local farmers and eaters also requires education within the community. As a Core Partner for the National Farm to School Network, we offer Rhode Island Farm to School programming and serve as a liaison for information, resources, needs, and opportunities. Our nutrition education programs for students and seniors offer hands-on opportunities and information needed to make smart choices. These programs are offered through school and after-school activities, senior centers, garden programs, and farmers markets.
Additionally, our farmers market nutrition education program for families receiving federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits called “Healthy Foods, Healthy Families” empowers parents and children with the tools to shop for affordable, seasonal foods and prepare them in healthy ways.
Our Bonus Bucks nutrition incentives program offers a 100 percent match for SNAP users at many Rhode Island farmers markets, CSAs, and farm stands, doubling the purchasing power of low-income Rhode Islanders to buy more nutritious foods while re-investing those federal dollars into the Rhode Island economy by directly supporting local growers and food businesses.
Ensuring that healthy food is accessible to all is crucial. But even as recognition of the problem is growing and progress is being made, between 6 percent and 9 percent of all U.S. households are still without access to healthy food.
Rebecca Seggel is the communications director for Farm Fresh Rhode Island.