Making Food Security a Priority in Rhode Island

Food entrepreneurs and policy-makers took part in a panel discussion about the future of food in the Ocean State.

Panelists at the JWU BRIDGE Center’s Food Sovereignty discussion are (L-R): Tood Sandstrum and Craig Jones (Crave Food Services), Isabella Cassell (Social Entreprise Greenhouse), Mark Huang (Providence director of economic development), David Dadekian (Eat Drink RI), Cameron Sycks (JWU Providence’s Club of Culinary Excellence) and Ann-Marie Bouthillette (Blackbird Farm ).

Food will help Rhode Island grow” is a common refrain here in the Ocean State, where our culinary economy stands strong next to our health care and creative sectors.

JWU Providence’s BRIDGE Center recently brought together a panel of thought leaders to discuss the role governing bodies, higher education and community-based organizations can play in addressing issues of food sovereignty and food security.

The guest panelists included:

  • Ann-Marie Bouthillette, owner, Blackbird Farm
  • Isabella Cassell, Social Enterprise Greenhouse [SEG] director of food initiatives
  • David Dadekian, Eat Drink RI
  • Mark Huang, Providence director of economic development
  • Todd Sandstrum + Craig Jones*, Crave Food Services
  • Cameron Sycks*, president of JWU Providence’s Club of Culinary Excellence

The US Food Sovereignty Alliance defines food sovereignty as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.”

The big idea behind this bottom-up approach to improving food security is to:

  • Create stronger alliances between farmers, communities and local governments
  • Empower local growers and companies over national or corporate interests

The big question for the panel was: Can it work in Rhode Island? The lively hour-long discussion, excerpted below, could be summed up with a very strong “Yes.”

Mark Huang: For starters, everybody sign up for Urban Greens [a co-op grocery store being planned for Providence’s West Side, an identified food desert]. It’s a rebuttal to industrialized food.

Here in Rhode Island, we have a great story. Thirty years ago, someone made the decision to clean up the bay. Now we’re harvesting oysters, mussels, clams and other filter feeders that are also improving the health of the bay.

Isabella: How can we make the market for local foods bigger so that the prices go down? It’s all about building networks — and we’re a small state, so we can connect them.

Ann-Marie: It’s very important for people to know where their meat comes from. In the US we have enough meat to feed ourselves. We do not need to import. But it comes down to infrastructure.

It’s all about building networks — and we’re a small state, so we can connect them.”-Isabella, SE Greenhouse

Todd: Infrastructure is rapidly changing, but we can’t keep up. There’s nowhere to store food on a large scale. Here’s where technology can help local growers.

Mark: To follow Todd’s point about technology: Food IS part of the knowledge economy. In the last two years, more than $2 billion has been invested in food venture capital — that kind of money isn’t invested without major growth opportunities. I want a piece of that for RI.

David: I want to see more communication and building these networks — to really get more people aware of what’s going on here in RI.

Mark: On the policy side, this state believes we should source more locally. That requires transparency, labeling, certification. The state is looking at mapping out food systems — in fact the governor’s office is hiring a food policy director position.

The pushback on everything we’ve just talked about is: How do we feed 10 billion people? Monsanto would certainly ask that question.

David: Of course we want local — but if there’s a low-income person going to their corner bodega I’d want them to buy non-local produce over processed garbage.

Isabella: It’s important to be positive and open — don’t make someone feel awful for eating a bag of Cheetos. Come from a community/supportive standpoint.

Craig: Ask people who are making $20,000/year how they manage to feed a family of four and still pay the electric bill. Ask them how they can get more access. Open up the conversation to people who generally aren’t invited to these conversations — that’s the key to finding solutions.

Keep the conversation going on Twitter. How would you like to see #FoodHelpRIGrow?

*Craig is a JWU Providence alum, and Cameron is a current student.

Related Reading
The Dish Q-and-A: Urban Greens
2015 RI Seafood Challenge: What’s Scup?

Panel discussion at JWU Providence’s BRIDGE Center.

Topics: Sustainability Food economy Providence Campus Life