Strong food system supports R.I.’s economy, culture, people

Rhode Island is known for its food. The state’s reputation goes beyond our excellent eateries. The local food industry is often cited as an area of economic strength and a prime area for growth. One might think the food sector is running close to capacity. According to state estimates, it supports more than 60,000 jobs. Last year, our restaurants captured more than $2 billion in sales.

The state’s Food Policy Council – known as Relish Rhody – points out Rhode Island is leading the nation in food-system planning and innovation, spurred on by a growing demand for fresh, locally grown food among consumers. The number of farms in Rhode Island is on the rise, and the state boasts a thriving, young farmer network.

Rhode Island tops the rankings in the percentage of farms owned by beginning farmers and those selling directly to consumers. The state takes a back seat to none of the other 49 in rankings thanks to our fisheries, which are included in our agriculture. In 2015, 100 million pounds of seafood was landed in Rhode Island – with an export value over $1 billion.

The state is doing its job promoting innovation and food-based entrepreneurship. Relish Rhody is charged with food strategy. R.I. Director of Food Sue AnderBois is the director, innovator and head cheerleader.

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MAKING CONNECTIONS: Aura Fajardo, left, owner and chocolatier at Aura’s Chocolate Bar, and Ginny McQueen of Shady Lane Granola attend a tabletop trade show held at the Hope & Main culinary incubator in Warren April 26.
 / COURTESY R.I. COMMERCE CORP.
MAKING CONNECTIONS: Aura Fajardo, left, owner and chocolatier at Aura’s Chocolate Bar, and Ginny McQueen of Shady Lane Granola attend a tabletop trade show held at the Hope & Main culinary incubator in Warren April 26.
 / COURTESY R.I. COMMERCE CORP.

AnderBois recently brought some of the emerging food producers in the state together with a group of people who want to access their high-quality local food products. R.I. Commerce Corp. has a program called SupplyRI, whose goal is to increase the amount of goods and services Rhode Island employers procure from in-state suppliers. Relish Rhody and SupplyRI are taking advantage of an opportunity to synergize using established methods in business today – networking, referrals and business assistance involving finance, legal advice, accounting and other services at little to no cost. Some of the state’s leading companies who already buy goods and services through SupplyRI are eager to provide top-quality, local foods for their employees and for other state residents. A tabletop trade show to bring them together was held at Hope & Main in Warren April 26. The attendees representing some well-known state industries and employers talked, listened and tasted what was being offered by a who’s who of the state’s food providers from the well-known, such as Rhody Fresh, Pat’s Pastured, Town Dock and Dave’s Coffee, to some new providers and growers, such as DaSilva Farm, Sanctuary Herbs and GG’s Pretzels.

What happened during the day was what appears to be the beginning of a cooperative, interdependent network of diverse entities that could lead to a real, sustainable industry beyond just the selling of goods. In fact, it’s already underway. Baffoni’s Poultry Farm is a great example. The Baffoni family has been a success story on the Rhode Island food scene and has been doing farm-to-table since 1935. Four generations of the family work on 80 acres in Johnston in the company of approximately 25,000 chickens and 1,200 turkeys, according to the farm’s website. The flock consists of leghorn and Rhode Island Red hens for eggs, and broad-breasted Cornish broilers and fryers. They are cared for with nonantibiotic and hormone-free feed. The poultry is never frozen.

Other groups are stepping up. The prestigious and prodigious Farm Fresh cooperative has a new idea – a subscription to delivered boxes of hand-selected, fresh produce and other items from local farms and food producers. It is called Veggie Box. The Farm Fresh staff was soliciting businesses, schools and workplaces to become pickup sites for the Veggie Boxes for employees, students and the public. At a time when Rhode Island needs something to cheer about, our local food may be just the thing.

Bruce Newbury’s Dining Out radio talk show is heard Saturdays at 11 a.m. on 1540 AM WADK, through various mobile applications and via smart speaker. Email Bruce at Bruce@brucenewbury.com.