We Didn’t Skip a Beat: Farm Fresh Rhode Island
Farm Fresh Rhode Island (Farm Fresh) is a non-profit organization that has been connecting farmers and eaters since 2004. Farm Fresh works to increase community access to local food and create transparent systems and market-based opportunities for local farmers and producers through programs and services that address many aspects of the food system. These include Farm Fresh’s Market Mobile transparent local food distribution service, Bonus Bucks 100% match for shoppers using Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, Harvest Kitchen local food cafe and job training for underserved teens, Farm to School and Community Education programming, and farmers markets located in areas with limited access to fresh food — including one of the largest wintertime markets in the Northeast. In Co-Executive Director Jesse Rye’s words, “the intersection of activities that increases access to fresh, local foods in the Northeast that also address economic viability of farming for farmers” is at the heart of Farm Fresh — an organization working to support a food system that values the environment, health, and quality of life for both farmers and consumers.
Farm Fresh’s Market Mobile service provides local farmers with a transparent online marketplace for selling their harvest, where they control their own pricing and can monitor sales in real time. Since Farm Fresh began Market Mobile in 2010, the service has empowered wholesale buyers like chefs, grocers, and institutional dining purchasers to buy from a wide variety of local growers with just one online order form, invoice, and delivery — putting more local food within reach. Before COVID-19 disrupted the traditional wholesale markets, Farm Fresh had cultivated a network of wholesale buyers for farmers that spanned across institutional customers, restaurants, farm stands, and grocery stores. When confronted with the immediate reality of the global pandemic’s impact on regional food systems, however, Farm Fresh needed to address the loss of institutional and restaurant sales for farmers coupled with increased food insecurity. In response to the high demand for fresh food and consumers’ uncertainty about procuring frozen meats and protein, the Market Mobile program shifted to connect its regional farmer and producer partners with individual consumers by offering home delivery and socially distant pick-up in Pawtucket.
“One of the positive things that’s come out of this moment,” Jesse explains, “is that we’ve been able to bring the work that we’ve done around food access in farmers market settings with matching SNAP benefits to the revised Market Mobile program.” Consumers receiving federal food assistance in the form of SNAP benefits can participate in Market Mobile and double their spending power with Bonus Bucks, illustrating Farm Fresh’s commitment to increasing access to fresh food. By opening Market Mobile to residential customers in addition to wholesale buyers, Farm Fresh helped farms and food producers reach a new customer base when they needed it most, and provided fresh food options for the community. In a typical week offering just wholesale, Farm Fresh saw an average of 150 unique customers each week. When Market Mobile opened to the public, 8,000 new customers logged into the order form. During the first few weeks, the service reached capacity in mere minutes. Market Mobile added additional staffing and scaled operations to meet demand, and Farm Fresh is facilitating more business for local farmers than in pre-COVID circumstances. The resulting economic impact for local farmers and food producers, in addition to consumers’ positive responses, demonstrate the powerful effect of developing a place-based and resilient food system.
This spring, Farm Fresh was awarded a USDA contract to pack boxes of local food for hunger relief agencies in Rhode Island. Farm Fresh gears its works in response to the needs of both farmers and eaters. This has never been more acute than during this time of crisis and heightened public attention on where food comes from. Jesse is excited about engaging people in knowing where their food is grown, who makes the food, and how it gets to their table, and “within Farm Fresh on an organizational level, it’s been a big moment for all of us as individuals and programs to come together and work as a team across many facets of the food system.” As the organization steps into the future, their work is grounded in advocating for food systems change to build a sustainable, regional network of producers and consumers.
Embedded within the organization’s variety of programs are multiple interaction points with people and communities from different backgrounds and identities. Jesse notes that as a white-led organization, Farm Fresh, is committed to implementing anti-racist policies and practices at the organization. As the staff, leadership, and board of Farm Fresh work on fostering a thoughtful approach to racial justice in the organization, they continue to grow as a team, both personally and quite literally. Now that Farm Fresh is preparing to move into a new physical space in Providence, the team is exploring new opportunities to define what community looks like, and how to be part of a more inclusive and just food system in Rhode Island and the entire Northeast region.
Now, Farm Fresh is finalizing construction on a new building in Providence that will hold its offices, packhouse, processing kitchen, and year-round farmers market as well as rental space for other food and farm related businesses. With all the programs, activities, and excitement for an October move-in, Farm Fresh is currently planning to open their winter market in November. The new, larger building will allow for increased circulation and will enable Farm Fresh to effectively manage the layout of market patrons to ensure social distancing. With the new space comes additional ability to increase capacity for local food distribution, provide local food processing, implement and enhance community programming, and potentially partner with similar organizations.
For over 16 years, Farm Fresh has been developing programs for farmers, food producers, and consumers in the regional food system. In the face of unprecedented changes to markets and consumer behavior, Farm Fresh made quick and creative pivots to address emerging needs such as food insecurity and disappearing market outlets. Regardless of external circumstances, Farm Fresh will continue to channel uncertainty into productive and transformative food systems change.
One of the positive things that’s come out of this moment is that we’ve been able to bring the work that we’ve done around food access in farmers market settings with matching SNAP benefits to the revised Market Mobile program.