Building on our last post about Farm Fresh Rhode Island, we’re interviewing Sarah Bernstein, Program Director for Food System Enterprise. Sarah’s background in education, sustainability, and local foods informs her work with Farm Fresh RI.
So let’s start by asking the obvious—why is local sourcing important?
There are so many reasons! Because less time has passed from harvest to customer, it’s fresher and it tastes really good. Its vitamins and minerals haven’t been depleted in the same way as something that’s been on a truck or that was harvested a long time ago. So inevitably, local food is healthier food.
There are also a lot of environmental implications. Local food reduces the emissions associated with having food travel long distances on a truck or a train. It also preserves local land from development. And by preserving green space for farmland, we’re investing in our future.
How does the work you do at Farm Fresh RI benefit local schools?
The institutional purchasing that we enable through Market Mobile is particularly impressive because of the amount of local product that we’re able to get into institutions while they’re only working with one purveyor. It’s much more efficient for them, and it makes it possible for them to work with a variety of small local farmers and producers.
How does it benefit farmers?
It’s also easier for farmers, because they’re in the business of growing food. The part of the business that most farmers enjoy is planting crops, sketching their fields, making sure they have product year-round. So most of the farmers we work with will say, “Thank you for dealing with deliveries.” It allows them to focus on their land and their product instead of logistics and sales.
It’s really allowed local producers to expand what they’re doing. We didn’t have a USDA-licensed poultry processing facility in this state, and now we do, because a chicken and egg farm was able to expand its business. So that provides infrastructure for the state, and more people can raise birds that can be processed for meat and eggs.
How do you make sure that your suppliers follow safe food practices?
Different farms have different certifications, including GAP, CQP, organic, and more. Some farms don’t have all of those certifications—it’s an expensive and bureaucratic process—but they still follow best practices. We’ll work with all sorts of farms, but we only connect SAGE with farms that have the certifications SAGE requires. Thanks to our software platform, your schools only see the producers who have the right certifications.
We also do farm visits, so we go to farms and make sure they’re growing what they say they’re growing in the way that they say they’re growing it. It’s really important to us that our customers get what they think they’re getting, because we know that you all rely on us for quality and transparency. We also collect certifications, insurance, and other compliance documents from all participating farms, and we hold a large liability policy ourselves, which allows large employers and schools to purchase from us.
What would Farm Fresh RI’s ideal food system look like?
Food Solutions New England has sketched out an idea that we’re working towards, which is that by the year 2060, 50% of the food eaten in New England will be sourced from New England. Rhode Island has expensive farmland, and it’s a small state. So at Farm Fresh RI, we think about how we can rely on our entire region to source more food locally. In terms of our role, we’re connectors. We’re in a unique position to connect people and be really responsive to the needs on both sides, supply and demand.
How do you hope to grow your role as a connector in the future?
Right now, we’re building our infrastructure. We’re building a new facility to give us increased capacity for processing and aggregation of product from across farms. Local food can be harder to work with. Sometimes it’s really dirty. Or sometimes you’re an institution and you’re used to getting your broccoli florets already washed and cut down. We’re trying to make it easier for places with different needs to get local food.
What are your best practices in nutrition education for kids?
We run programs in schools and at farmers markets to introduce kids to foods and recipes they haven’t tried before. It takes kids a long time to develop a taste for things, so we really emphasize trying new foods. We say, “It’s okay if you spit it out; we just want you to try it.”
What’s your favorite way to prepare produce?
A friend of mine jokes that her mom is going to write a book called, “Oops, I Did It Again: Olive Oil, Pepper, Salt.” Because if you season fresh produce like that and roast it, you can’t really go wrong. It just tastes good.