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Monday, January 22, 2018

Grow Local proponents outline challenges ahead

2nd annual Rhode Island Food Summit supports local food movement

FoodNearly 400 people gathered at the University of Rhode Island on Jan. 18 for the second annual Rhode Island Food Summit to network with those who work in the local food system and to hear from local experts, discuss partnership opportunities, learn about funding sources, and celebrate and support the development of the local food movement in the state.

Dan Levinson, founder of the URI Food Center and one of the organizers of the event, opened the program by encouraging the audience members “to see yourself as a great actor in a spectacular community that has a shot at being a game changer in how our culture looks at food.”

He set the scene for more than 50 speakers, each of whom had just a few minutes to tell their personal story, outline the issues they were tackling, pitch innovative ideas or ask for or offer advice. And throughout the afternoon, Levinson offered those new to the Rhode Island food scene a minute to introduce themselves and their activities.

Farmer Rob Swanson advocated for increased farmland protection efforts by telling the story of how farmers three generations ago could comfortably raise a family with just 20 dairy cows or 1,000 chickens. Due to the high cost of land in Rhode Island, that is no longer possible without publicly supported programs to preserve farmland.

Fisherman Chris Brown argued that the fishing industry is facing major changes due to climate change as fish stocks shift their ranges, “delivering us fish that we don’t have the equipment to catch or the quotas to meet,” he said. 

“One of the things that will allow us to survive these changes is to redefine success, not by how much we can catch but by what we can do to provide for the future.”

The speakers, however, did not just focus on how to produce more local food. They addressed a wide variety of issues.

“When we think about food systems, we immediately think about production and consumption, but we forget the pieces in between, especially the less glorious backdoor side of the system,” said Leo Pollock, founder of The Compost Plant. 

“We have incredible waste resources here – animal waste, food waste – and there’s a real opportunity here. What would it look like if Rhode Island was one of the leaders in thinking about composting infrastructure, composting systems and building soil knowledge?”

Speakers from the Jonnycake Center, the Rhode Island Community Food Bank, and the SNAP Education Program discussed issues of food insecurity and food access.

“It doesn’t matter how much food we’re growing if the hungry people in our state aren’t getting it,” Levinson said. “The system isn’t working.”

Other speakers addressed urban gardens, school gardens, aquaponics, cut flowers, breweries, food-related education and workforce development, and numerous other topics.

Many speakers emphasized the importance of working toward a regional food system and the objective of “50 by 60” – producing 50 percent of the food consumed in the region locally by the year 2060. Rhode Island currently produces just 2 percent of the food consumed in the state.

“Why are we at 2 percent?” asked Ken Ayars, chief of the Rhode Island Division of Agriculture. “Because we’re at the end of a long period of time when food lost its place in society. So we have a long way to go. But we can make things right. We just need to stay positive, proactive and collaborative.”

Entrepreneur and URI alumnus Perry Raso, who owns Matunuck Oyster Bar as well as an aquaculture farm and a vegetable farm, concluded the program by asking the audience to “maintain your connection to URI. It’s the number one resource in the state for supporting sustainable agriculture.”