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Rhode Island Food System Summit 2017 - a first look into RI’s state food plan

In the spirit of the Summit, which was meant to be driven by and for all Rhode Islanders, we developed this post as a group, with multiple individuals contributing their voices and reflections.

Rhode Island’s first Food System Summit, which was held on January 10, 2017, brought together participants from across the state food scene: farmers to composters, fishermen to researchers, state representatives to food enthusiasts. With insights from these different backgrounds, we all came to the table to discuss Rhode Island’s first statewide Food Strategy, talk about the opportunities and challenges facing the local food system, and, of course, enjoy some of Rhode Island’s local food flavors. The Summit provided space to reconnect, meet new contacts, share ideas, and gather around our common passion: growing the Rhode Island food system and making its bounty available to all Rhode Islanders!

We chose for the opening keynote to have the “food system” be the main event, with food system stakeholders working in different parts of the food system speaking about their experiences with and connection to Rhode Island food.

The day was broken into two halves, with five sessions in each. To take a look at the agenda click here. Below you can find reflections shared by Rhode Island Food Policy Council (RIFPC) current and former members about the various sessions. For more information and materials on the food plan, including the current outline and invitation for public comment, please visit

Sustaining Local Food Businesses: Balancing Scale & Growth

This session gave attendees the opportunity to listen to and dig in with local food business owners, employees, and makers that showcase the full bounty of the Ocean State.  With three breakout conversations happening simultaneously, table hosts emphasized the opportunities and challenges facing Rhode Island food businesses: the excitement about a growing food system network in Rhode Island and the generosity of partners (and even potential competitors!) in helping new businesses get started; finding a constant balance between needing better market analysis and planning/preparation with the the need to charge ahead and create products and opportunities, pivoting and staying flexible as conditions shift.  No doubt the most important takeaway from this session was an even greater respect for the vision, commitment, grit and nimbleness required to take an idea and scale it into a viable business!

Table hosts included: William Bigelow (Blount Fine Foods), Mike Reppucci (Sons of Liberty Spirits Co), Mark Federico (Narragansett Creamery), Lee Ann Freitas (Indie Growers), Louby Sukkar and Matt McClelland (The Backyard Food Company), Mike Hallock (RI Mushroom Company), Kaitlyn Roberts (Easy Entertaining), James Mark (north), and Perry Raso (Matunuck Oyster Bar)

- Leo Pollock, Principal, The Compost Plant; Network Director, Rhode Island Food Policy Council 

Mapping Financial resources for Food Enterprises

There is no question that capital access is an essential component to a healthy food system. During the Summit, I participated in the "Mapping Financial Resources for Food Enterprises" panel, moderated by Diane Lynch of Social Enterprise Greenhouse. Along with the other panelists, Dan Jennings of Commerce RI, Buck Harris of CIC, Angela Laperriere of SEED Corporation, Ken Ayars of DEM, and Joanne Demars of the USDA, we aimed to provide a well-rounded view of financing options for RI food businesses. It was clear that there is a diversity of products available, and most importantly, each representative was dedicated to helping the food system grow, through collaborating with one another on referrals, providing technical assistance to applicants, and gathering feedback from their customers. Like the food community, the financial resources community wants to work collaboratively to sustain food business success.

- Isabella Cassell, Director of Food Initiatives, Social Enterprise Greenhouse 

Technical Assistance For Farm, Fisheries, & Food Businesses

The session on Technical Assistance (TA) was a great opportunity to bring providers of TA together to share what they are working on, helping foster collaboration and coordination of efforts across the food system.  While the opportunity to share what work is being done was an important piece of the conversation, equally important was highlighting resources that are not yet available or known.  Conversation included recommendations to have more assistance that would take into account cultural needs as well, including providing assistance to those who face challenges around language barriers. Thank you to those who participated in this session and to our panelists: Tess Brown-Lavoie, Young Farmer Network & Land For Good, Luca Carnevale, Hope & Main, Dr. Deborah Sheely, URI Extension, and Sumana Chintapalli CLF & RIFPC.

- Sumana Chintapalli, Farm and Food Legal Fellow, Conservation Law Foundation; Communications and Outreach Director, RIFPC

Connecting Rhode Island Food Producers and Institutions

The Farm to Institution session provided a great snapshot of farm to institution work going on around Rhode Island and across the region. Presenters included Farm to Institution New England (FINE), Farm Fresh Rhode Island, Red's Best and Roger Williams University - all shared the ways they were working to increase institutional purchasing of local food and educating students, buyers and institutions on the importance of local food. The audience had great questions for the panelists, and it felt like just the beginning of a much larger conversation!

- Hannah Mellion, Food Hub Project Coordinator, Farm to Institution New England; Former member, RIFPC

Waste Not. Want Not: Diverting Food Waste to Rhode Islanders

How can RI help meet the EPA's goal of reducing food waste 50% by 2030? By getting food to those who need it and reducing the environmental and economic costs that we all bear when food is wasted.

What did we learn? That the RI Food bank is already doing monumental work capturing the excess from RI’s major food retailers, and sees a need for more economic supports to address food insecurity in the state. That Massachusetts set up a nonprofit of technical experts, which showed that if assistance to businesses that create food waste is available, the businesses can smoothly reduce their waste and potentially realize savings. That the RI restaurant industry needs more education, and possibly some incentives, to reduce without spending valuable time and resources. That in order to capture more wasted food from commercial sources, some technical assistance and overall coordination are probably desirable."

- Antonia Bryson, RIFPC Environment Work Group Chair

Regulatory Challenges for Food Enterprises

This session aimed to open up discussion around regulatory challenges facing food producers and businesses around the state of Rhode Island. The session, co-led by Director of Health, Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, and Liz Tanner of Commerce RI provided an opportunity for participants to speak about their experiences and provide feedback on this important piece of food system development.  

Getting at the Root Causes of Food Insecurity in Rhode Island

This workshop focused on community-level and state-level initiatives to address food security for low-income eaters. Opportunities included addressing transportation barriers, expanding financial incentives for fruits and vegetables, and increasing access to and quality of school meals. The discussion emphasized the importance of grassroots power to create community-led solutions.  

- Eliza Cohen, Rhode Island Public Health Institute; RIFPC Member

Understanding & Growing the Commercial Fishing Industry  

The “Growing Our Fishery Resources in RI” session at the Rhode Island Food Summit showcased the diversity, value, and impact of the RI commercial fisheries sector, illuminated what is needed to sustain and support a strong, resilient, innovative, and successful fishing industry in RI, and set priorities to be included in the Food Strategy. Session panelists included fishermen, seafood processors, fisheries researchers, regulators, and a seafood chef from RI. The panel presentations and discussions highlighted the need for an effort to incorporate more local seafood into the RI food system and provide support for fishing businesses to adapt and grow in Rhode Island. With over 90% of seafood landed in the USA being exported and over 80% of the seafood consumed in the USA being imported, there is a  lot of progress to be made and Rhode Island is a great place to start.

- Anna Malek Mercer, Executive Director, Commercial Fisheries Research Foundation; RIFPC Member

Crafting a Vision for Local Agriculture

In the 'Crafting a Vision for Local Ag' session moderated by Ken Ayars, panelists provided several perspectives on food production in the state. We are all energized by the demand and institutional support for local food, while we still face significant challenges in our work— from beginning farmer land access issues, to regulatory blocks, to difficulty accessing wholesale markets. The many barriers to entry for young and beginning farmers— which are exacerbated in marginalized communities— require broad and deep response, and this session considered strategies in marketing, policy change, incentivizing local purchasing, and opening pathways to agricultural careers to people who have been dispossessed of land or have had unequal access to other resources and opportunities.

- Tess Brown-Lavoie, Field Agent, Land For Good; Rhode Island Young Farmer Network; Sidewalk Ends Farm; Former RIFPC Member 

Relish Rhody: How We Talk About Food in Rhode Island

As with the entire Summit, it was hugely encouraging to see so many people, especially new faces, at the Relish Rhody session. Having been immersed in telling the region and the world about Rhode Island food as part of my work for many years, it's always interesting to hear other people's views and perspectives. There's always something new to learn and we were invaluably aided by our session hosts Sumana Chintapalli, Katie Kleyla, Jesse Rye and Lara Salamano.  

- David Dadekian, President, Eat Drink RI and Chair, Rhode Island Food Policy Council

Food is an integral piece of Rhode Island’s history, cultural identity, and economy.  With a growing reputation as a food and culinary destination, Rhode Island is unique in its diversity of food system businesses and supporting organizations. The Summit was an exciting step for Rhode Island, an opportunity to view the first public outline of RI’s first state food plan, and a chance for all Rhode Islanders to connect and engage around the food system.