Food & Farming

Summit Focuses On Making Rhode Island’s Food System Sustainable, Resilient


Pollinators play a vital role in creating and maintaining a healthy local food system. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

KINGSTON, R.I. — Experts in agriculture, aquaculture and fisheries, policy experts and stakeholders discussed ways to improve and better support the state’s food system at the sixth annual Rhode Island Food System Summit, hosted by the University of Rhode Island.

While the state’s food sector is one of the largest employers in Rhode Island, representing nearly $4.5 billion in economic output and supporting 70,000 jobs, the Ocean State is still overly reliant on outside food producers, the more than 600 attendees learned at the virtual event, held Jan. 20. Participants discussed ways to increase food production in the state and across the country in the interest of creating a more sustainable, equitable, and resilient food system.

Julianne Stelmaszyk, the new director of food strategy for Rhode Island Commerce, said that over the past decade the state has steadily nurtured a more locally based food system, seeing a marked increase in new and beginning farmers, young farmers and immigrant food producers entering the field. The state’s seafood sector also continues to grow through aquaculture, experiencing a tenfold increase in the past decade. However, as a state that still imports approximately 90 percent of its food, Rhode Island is not immune to national and global food supply chain disruptions.

“That’s why continuing investment in the state’s local agriculture and seafood infrastructure are essential to ensuring long-term food security in Rhode Island,” Stelmaszyk said.

Over the past five years, the state has invested more than $25 million in food, farm and fish businesses through grants, small business loans, and tax credits, she said, and helped to preserve more than 700 acres of farmland through green economy bonds and the Agricultural Land Preservation Commission.

“Good food is a tool for better health outcomes, a cleaner environment, job creation, and more resilient communities,” Stelmasyk said. “We must invest in our food infrastructure, businesses, and workforce to ensure long-term food security. We must connect more emergency food programs with our local food producers so that Rhode Islanders can feed Rhode Island.”

As part of her work, Stelmaszyk will be updating Relish Rhody, the state’s food strategy, which includes five goals: to preserve agriculture and fisheries; to improve the climate for food businesses; to create new markets for Rhode Island products; to divert excess food scrap; and to ensure that all Rhode Islanders have adequate food to lead healthy and fulfilling lives. The ultimate goal is to work collectively with other New England states to produce 30 percent of the food consumed in the region by 2030 and increasing that goal to 50 percent by 2050.

URI president Marc Parlange underscored the impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on food systems globally, further deepening threats already posed by climate change and economics.

“The pandemic has required us to make simple shifts in our daily lives, but it also has required us to think more critically about how to solve these bigger world issues as the state’s land and sea grant institution,” he said.

Parlange mentioned current research under way at URI in agriculture and aquaculture, and also noted URI’s recent $500,000 Build Back Better Regional Challenge Award from the U.S. Economic Development Administration. The planning grant is intended to help advance blue economy research and initiatives in areas such as aquaculture, ocean engineering, and offshore wind.

Kenneth Ayars, chief of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s division of agriculture, talked about the need to embrace technology and innovation to achieve a more sustainable locally based food system in a small state like Rhode Island.

“We want to embrace the technology that allows us to be more productive per acre in this state,” he said.

Controlled environment and vertical growing techniques can bring predictability to the current agricultural system, bringing farming to urban centers, rooftops, pavement and brownfields, shortening the time to market and increasing what is available locally, Ayars said. The advancements are intended to supplement and support traditional farming, with an overall goal of a more localized food system, he added.

Although the state’s Port of Galilee is one of the largest on the East Coast and among the top 10 nationwide, most of the seafood consumed by Rhode Islanders is imported, according to Robert Ballou, of the DEM. He said most of the state’s seafood is exported, and while that results in strong economic returns, it also affects the local food system.

Part of the reason for this, according to Diane Lynch, chair of the Rhode Island Food Policy Council, is the lack of sufficient wastewater treatment infrastructure in the state. She said increasing the infrastructure capacity is one area in which additional blue economy funding can make a difference.

URI is advancing land-based finfish aquaculture, another blue economy opportunity capable of creating jobs and feeding Rhode Islanders, with its public-private partnership with a local company, Greenfins.

Terence Bradley, a URI professor of fisheries and aquaculture, is focusing on two high-end species — yellowtail kingfish and mahi mahi — and on producing them in a sustainable, environmentally friendly way. He said the next step is to establish a land-based facility in Rhode Island, within easy range of major markets such as Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia.

The food summit was organized by the URI Business Engagement Center.


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