Sunday, March 22, 2009

Farm Fresh Rhode Island & SBN Greater Boston

Two Fridays ago, the 13th to be exact, I attended an event organized by the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Boston (that name is way too long) at Boston City Hall entitled Think Local, Eat Local: Growing Local Food Systems with special guest Noah Fulmer, Executive Director of Farm Fresh Rhode Island. I looked forward to the event to learn more about the work happening in the New England region around local food as well as to continue to connect with people engaged in the work. The Boston Redevelopment Authority hosted the event at City Hall (with all due respect to the designers and the experts who lauded its design, that building is depressing). I expected a dozen or so people, and was pleasantly surprised to see closer to 30 attendees; people ranging from small business owners, restaurateurs, Boston city employees, and generally interested people. Of course, I bumped into Jessie Banhazl from Green City Growers. Jeff Barry of Boston Organics and Michael Kanter of Cambridge Naturals were there as well.

The event was enlightening, and it appears that Noah and the small staff of Farm Fresh RI have made some incredible progress increasing the connections between local eaters (not "consumers", it's an important distinction) with local producers. In the Providence area, they have a 50% awareness penetration rate; I cannot remember how they calculated that number, but it's impressive. Right off, I liked the fact that they invited the participation of farmers, buyers, and eaters outside of RI's borders, after all, when it comes to food, local is not just about political boundaries (and it is already pretty ambiguous). As Noah went on, we learned that at any given time we have between 2-3 days of food supply within the area, including what's in transit. I heard a comment that something like 5% of the food consumed in Massachusetts is produced here. Again, it may be better for greater Boston to get something from southern NH than western MA, yet it's still a startlingly small percentage.

I loved his anecdote about seeing potatoes in the local supermarket with Idaho stamps on them instead of the ones produced right there in Rhode Island. It led him to start asking "what's going on here? This makes no sense."

Something that Noah mentioned that I'd never thought of was the work schedule differences between buyers and sellers; farmers get up early and go to bed early, chefs (one of the groups searching for fresh local produce) arise late and work late. There is little time when they overlap, making it difficult to connect them. He's created an online ordering system to take advantage of excess truck space in delivery vehicles to connect chefs with the local food they want. That's a refreshing effort; one of the things I've learned in my brief interest in local/regional food is that the delivery infrastructure is one of the key problems to address. Seems that coordinating deliveries from many small forms could help in that regard.

The demand for (and interest in) local food continues to grow, and Noah mentioned that through October of 2008, they had 60,000 unique site visitors, growing from 1,000 in 2005 and 12,000 in 2006. That's pretty amazing, and clearly and indication that they are doing something important and doing it well.

Large gaps in the local supply and delivery infrastructure remain. It is great to see interested people thinking about closing these gaps and energetic young people taking action. It's interesting that the subject of infrastructure comes up over and over again. At the creative session on local food I coordinated back in December with the help of Seven Cycles, we spent a good deal of time talking about infrastructure (there were a few people in the room that had some experience in this area).

How might we continue to rebuild the local food supply & delivery infrastructure with New England?

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