Local food requires better networking

Monday, April 18, 2005

There are barriers on the road from farm to cafeteria plate, especially if the food is locally grown.

The lack of a local system to coordinate efforts between farmers and local institutional food purchasers is one of the primary problems for those trying to initiate local food programs in Rhode Island, said participants in a roundtable discussion on locally grown food Friday.

Louella Hill ’04, food system coordinator for Brown Dining Services, organized the discussion, which included farmers, BuDS representatives, representatives from other universities and public schools and government officials, to discuss ways to increase the amount of locally grown food Rhode Island students consume.

Brown Dining Services, which currently offers students a variety of local food options according to the season including milk, eggs, peaches, apples and peppers, is seeking to expand the amount of locally grown food offered to students. Yet problems of volume, distribution, cost and efficiency continue to deter BuDS and other local schools from acquiring locally grown food.

“So much of the barriers have to do with the different parties not talking to each other. In order to transition to something more local, you need to build personal relationships,” said Noah Fulmer ’05.

“We wanted a connecting of people and all the different parts that would make a local purchasing system work,” Hill said.

Roundtable participants stressed the importance of connecting farmers with buyers. “It’s all a matter of communication. If farmers saw a demand out there for baby carrots, they’d grow baby carrots,” said Al Bettencourt, director of the Rhode Island Farm Bureau.

Anna Lappé ’95 stressed the importance of marketing and of informing students about the benefits of locally grown food. “The vast learning opportunities when students are eating form patterns that will go for the rest of our lives,” she said.

Although organic food has become a trend, Hill stressed the importance of buying locally grown versus organic.

“The only organic is local. If you buy a bag of organic carrots that was shipped across country using five gallons of fossil fuel and you bite into it thinking that it is a more wholesome food that will be cleaner for your body and the environment then you’re deceiving yourself.” Hill said.

Three years into Brown’s local food program, “we’ve worked with 15 to 20 different farms and bought 30,000 pounds of product last fall,” said Peter Rossi, assistant director of purchasing and systems at BuDS.

Brown’s sustainable food program, Community Harvest, was responsible for bringing farmer’s markets to Wriston last fall, as well as the harvest program in which students picked produce each week at a local farm. This summer, Hill is also looking to place students in summer jobs and internships with local farmers and farmers markets.

The conference, part of a four day “Local Food Forum,” also included forums on chocolate, organic growing, coffee and more.

Participants were quick to acknowledge the impact that a shift to locally grown purchasing could have. More than 200 colleges have initiated sustainable food programs in order to stem the loss of small, locally owned farms. Local farmer Nicole Vitello of Manic Organic lamented the “dwindling amount of farms under 10 acres in Rhode Island.”

Currently, there are about 700 farms comprising 10 percent of the land area of Rhode Island. Seventy percent of what they grow is non-edible products, according to Ken Ayars, chief of the Division of Agriculture and Resource Marketing at Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.

“This is a revolutionary conversation and could certainly change the economics of farms in this area,” Vitello said.

“One could buy a carrot from a local farmer and look that farmer in the eye and know that by supporting the farmer you’re supporting a family and you’re helping to hold on to open space in Rhode Island,” Hill said.