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Eating local, from farms to College Hill

It's 10:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning. Most students would want to crawl back under the covers and go back to sleep. But thoughts of research papers, problem sets and chemistry labs due the next week force students to pull themselves out of bed, throw on their jeans and brace the morning rain.

The Sharpe Refectory is crowded with students who are still hungover from the previous night's activities. Some watch Jose as he flips and spins ID cards through the air. Students look around the dining hall, trying to decide which line is most worth it, and their eyes settle on the omelet bar­­ –– the line has already begun to creep around the corner.

Students sometimes complain about the dining hall's long lines and the quality of food in the Ratty, but how many take the time to think about where all the food in the dining hall comes from? Or about the effort it takes to get those ingredients from the farm to Ratty plates?

Local food for more people

There are several organizations within the community that work to increase access to locally grown sustainable food. Farm Fresh Rhode Island is one of them. The organization was started by Brown students in 2004, and, although the organization is not associated with the University, Jennifer Baumstein '08, who is working at Farm Fresh as a year-long volunteer with AmeriCorps VISTA, said Brown has nevertheless been a strong supporter of the organization's mission. For example, each year Brown Dining Services hosts the Local Food Forum in Andrews Dining Hall and supports the Wriston Farmers' Market in the fall.

Until last November, the Center for Environmental Studies held the organization's offices.
Farm Fresh's offices are now located in Pawtucket, in the same building as the winter farmers' market, a location change Molly Bledsoe '12, an intern and volunteer with the organization, said is mutually beneficial. Looking for something worthwhile to do over break, Bledsoe started volunteering with Farm Fresh last December. She liked working with the organization so much that she interned over the summer through a grant from the Swearer Center for Public Service and continued her involvement when classes began again in the fall.

"I liked the feeling of community, of getting to know the farmers and the customers," Bledsoe said.

Though Bledsoe said Farm Fresh does not have enforceable product standards, she said the organization uses the 60/40 rule for all produce farmers sell in the markets — 60 percent of the products have to be from the farmer's own farm, while the other 40 percent can be from farms in Massachusetts, Connecticut or Rhode Island.

"It diversifies the market but keeps it regional," Bledsoe said, adding that such a rule is helpful especially because Rhode Island is such a small state.

Baumstein said part of Farm Fresh's goal is to distribute local food to as many people as possible, not just those that visit farmers' markets. Because only a few Rhode Island farmers sell wholesale, Baumstein said Farm Fresh tries to encourage large institutions, like hospitals, universities and other schools, to "buy into the idea that local food is better for the community and better for your health." She said the size and influence of these institutions enable them to create large and lasting changes within the community.
And it appears these changes are having a substantial effect.

Bledsoe said Farm Fresh's Market Mobile –– a distribution program that brings locally produced vegetables, fruit, yogurt and cheese to organizations and individuals –– has "grown 10 times faster than we thought it would" during the course of the program's pilot year. 

As part of the organization's initiative to connect low-income people with better access to local, healthy and fresh food, Farm Fresh accepts food stamps at many of its farmers' markets. Wholesome Wave Foundation and the Rhode Island Foundation provide the funding for the organization's Bonus Bucks program. Through Bonus Bucks, the amount each consumer spends using an electronic benefit card is doubled up to $10.  Bledsoe said the organization is also working to increase the amount of food corner stores order from Farm Fresh, with the idea that many of these stores primarily serve low-income members of the community.

Small farms disappearing

Bringing local food directly from farmers to customers is also a goal of Little Rhody Foods Inc., a Rhode Island food distributor. Eli Berkowitz, president and owner of the company, said Little Rhody is trying to help local farms survive by making sure farmers receive the majority of their products' profits. Berkowitz said small farms have almost disappeared. "There's no one left," he said. "It's not a very lucrative business to be in."

He said the majority of farms today are either very large or very small, something he said he feels is true for most businesses in the United States, and a fact that makes companies like Little Rhody increasingly more important.

"You need to support local businesses because it supports local jobs," Berkowitz said. "The con is that people are going to pay more for it."

To compete with larger companies like Garelick Farms, Berkowitz said Little Rhody focuses on having quality products. All of its milk is processed through cold separation, a technique Berkowitz said ensures a better taste than other methods of milk production. He said this process gives Little Rhody's milk a thicker, creamier taste, making its "skim milk taste more like Garelick's 1 percent."

Though Little Rhody Foods has been around for about six years, Berkowitz said he is always surprised by how many people in Rhode Island still don't know it exists.
Berkowitz said people often get into specific habits while shopping in supermarkets. Consumers often blindly buy certain products without considering how what they buy affects their community, he added. He said that's one of the reasons companies color code different versions of products, such as eggs, so that shoppers can easily identify each product without having to stop and take the time to actually read the labels.

Improving sustainability

Emily Viggiano '12 was hired in November by Dining Services as a Real Food Initiative progress coordinator. "Real Food's mission is to use the purchasing power of college dining facilities to support food that is locally and community based, fair, ecologically sound and humane," she said.

As an intern, Viggiano's role is to do "an assessment of our current purchases and to get baseline data on how much we're currently purchasing that is ‘real.' " She said she is also looking into ways Dining Services can make more "real food" purchases. Brown also has two community harvest interns who focus on facilitating more local food into the dining halls and eateries on campus.

According to Viggiano, Brown is currently purchasing about 65 percent of its milk from Little Rhody Foods and the rest of the purchases from Garelick. Ann Hoffman, director of administration for Dining Services, wrote in an e-mail to The Herald that it is difficult to know exactly what percentage of food is purchased locally because the term "local" does not currently have an agreed-upon definition. But she wrote that according to the College Sustainability Report Card, Brown partners "with more than 20 local farms and 31 local processors." Hoffman also wrote that the University regularly purchases items from farms such as  Barden Orchards, Hill Orchards and Mello's Farm.

Brown isn't the only university that has begun to buy a greater percentage of its food locally. Berkowitz said Providence College, Johnson and Wales University and the Rhode Island School of Design all buy products from Little Rhody Foods. According to Pierre St-Germain, RISD's executive chef, about 30 percent of what its dining halls buy and serve is local. He said the chicken that RISD use
s in its entrees all comes from Wellington Farms in western Massachusetts, and that whenever possible, all apples are purchased locally.
"We try and incorporate as much of that as possible into our daily menus," St-Germain said.

He said there is a higher cost associated with certain meat products, like chicken or hamburger, because of what is required to raise the animals naturally and without artificial feed. He also said the cheese RISD purchases from Narragansett Creamery tends to be more expensive because it is "artisan cheese," though in his mind it is "definitely worth" the extra cost. But other products, especially certain fruits and vegetables such as apples, are actually less expensive if bought locally.

St-Germain also said that purchasing local food has become "leaps and bounds easier" with Farm Fresh's Market Mobile. "We've been able to streamline the products we get each week," he said.

He said RISD tries to make thoughtful choices whenever its dining services purchases food for the campus community.  For example, he said the dining halls "went to great lengths" to find locally produced soy milk because of the item's popularity among students.

"I think we have an exceptional dining service," St-Germain said, adding that he encourages Brown students to take a walk down the hill to try one of RISD's eateries, which is now easier than ever since Brown students can add RISD meal credits directly onto their meal plans. 

Beyond the Ratty
In high school, Viggiano said she was involved with environmental and social justice work, but nothing directly related to sustainable food. She said the real food movement is something she's learned about pretty recently in college.

"It's a very optimistic issue to work on," Viggiano, said. In the sustainable food movement, "there's an image of what could be," she added.

This year, Viggiano, along with the other three members of her Graduate Center suite, went off meal plan. She said they get the majority of their food through the market share program, which is run by Farm Fresh's Market Mobile during the winter and spring months.
"Each of us cooks once a week on the weekdays," she said.

Despite the inconveniences of sharing a communal kitchen, Viggiano said it is fun to cook with her friends. Cooking and eating together is something she said is culturally important, and her participation in the market share program makes her feel as though she's living more by her values.

"Real food is something that is really important," Viggiano said. "It's healthier, better for the local environment and the local economy."


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