Local Flavor: RI Local Food Forum serves up optimism, but little else

by by Belle Cushing

illustration by by Shay O'Brien

"Fresh where we work” was the catchphrase of the day at the seventh annual Rhode Island Local Food Forum held on Tuesday February 8 at Brown University. Members of every part of the food industry gathered in Andrews Dining Hall at this brainstorming-cum-networking event with the goal of making professional connections and discussing the state of local food consumption in Rhode Island. This year’s theme focused on bringing local foods outside of Whole Foods and into schools, hospitals, and workplaces. Fleeced farmers shared tables with sanitary chefs in white coats. Striped and suited sales reps passed out business cards to food writers and restaurant owners, and eager Brown students chatted with butchers over organic vegetarian bisque. It was a meeting place for environmentalists, epicureans, and all the characters in between.

Glazing over the issues
The forum had the feel of a middle school leadership conference for adults, complete with cheese sandwiches at lunchtime (albeit with Narragansett Creamery mozzarella and rustic French bread). At networking time, professionals were guided from table to table and the well-meaning facilitators used clapping games to calm the rowdiness.
The keynote speaker, Dorothy Brayley, enthusiastically encouraged listeners to join her mission for “happy kids, happy adults!” Brayley is the founder of Kids First, a nonprofit designed to bring healthier food options to public schools in Rhode Island, and a newly formed spinoff called Real Food First, which aims to widen the distribution of local goods to convenience stores, hospitals, workplaces, and universities. Her programs have been extremely successful: she brought 200,000 pounds of local foods to public schools in 2010, and helped revise the RI nutrition requirements to include all whole grains, less processed foods, and healthy vending machine options—a drastic change from the Super Donuts kids received for breakfast when she first started her campaign. She might have been speaking to the elementary school kids to whom she usually caters, with her deliberate enthusiasm and emoticon peppered PowerPoint presentation. The tone was set for an event that emphasized sugary success stories, but failed to effectively address issues for future progress. Conference presenters preached to the culinary choir, lauding the benefits of crisp, fresh-grown cucumbers to an audience of CSA subscribers and loyal patrons of farmers markets.
A panel made up of a farmer, two chefs, a purchasing coordinator, and a produce supplier discussed the effects of bringing local food into schools and hospitals in Rhode Island. Accounts of  and minor logistical snags were well received by the panel and audience. It was when issues arose about affordability that the answers began to get vague. An organic farmer found little support when she brought up the challenge of keeping prices low while still paying her workers a living wage. When the public can get access to local foods through school and work, without paying for it directly, the reception is widely positive. When shopping for themselves, however, many people will not pay more for local over conventional food. Panel members insisted that patrons must see and taste the tangible difference, but the price gap remains a barrier for the local movement.

Real progress
More down-to-earth speeches came from Ken Ayars, the Chief of the Department of Environmental Management’s Division of Agriculture, and Noah Fulmer, executive director of Farm Fresh Rhode Island. Ayars spoke on governmental action to be taken, such as the mapping out of a five-year plan toward sustainability and the initiation of a Rhode Island Food day in October. Fulmer spoke eloquently about Rhode Island’s potential for growth in local industry. He outlined plans for directing federal dollars toward the local food industry, through food stamps that can be redeemed at farmers markets and a plan to prove the link between health and local foods in efforts to receive more funding. Both speeches focused on increasing the amount of in-state produced food consumed in Rhode Island. For all the hype about local foods recently, the statistic is still a mere one percent.
Brown student Lillian Mirviss spoke about the university’s efforts at trayless dining and composting, while Johnson and Wales instructors and students looked like they wanted to take a butcher knife to the next person who lauded Brown and RISD’s involvement in the local movement. It was a RISD executive chef who sat on the expert panel, and Brown students who publicized student organizations on everything from market shares to biodegradable take out containers. Due to high attention to food safety laws and liability issues, Johnson and Wales is behind other Providence schools in bringing local foods into food service programs. The JW chefs and students present, however, expressed a strong desire for change, looking for ways to bring one of the nation’s top culinary schools up to par in the local movement.

Easier said than done
The projects being discussed have generally found success, and the availability of local foods slowly widens. Despite the positive reception of local produce on behalf of the public, however, it became clear that eating local would take some getting used to. Demanding diners at elementary schools sent back their local broccoli because it looked different from the florets at the grocery store, and workers at Blue Cross Blue Shield were concerned about the state of never before seen local vegetables: “Why is my potato blue?”
Although the forum was flavored with a definite cheesiness, the optimism was truly genuine. In a time when much of the public has adopted a “been there, done that" attitude towards local sustainability as an over-hyped foodie fad, it was refreshing to see that none of the guests needed convincing about the importance of the issues. The conference served its primary goal of establishing lasting relationships among food industry professionals, connections that would have more power to address the issues at hand than would a five-hour conference. The most effective discourse took place during Speed Networking, where all different sectors of the industry exchanged business cards and hopes for progress. Questions that had not been addressed during the panel found interest in these more casual conversations. Most apparent was a shared love for food, and for the land that produced it.

BELLE CUSHING B’13 sometimes needs her rowdiness calmed.