Fighting Food Insecurity In PVD

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Is it hard to eat healthy on a budget? A common misconception is that fresh produce is out of reach for shoppers on a tight budget. Yet there is help for those experiencing food insecurity.

Farm Fresh Rhode Island, a Providence-based local food hub, works to keep fresh food accessible and affordable. Their multi-pronged approach tackles issues in the local food system based on a deep understanding of food access, farm viability, food policy, and the needs of the community. Farm Fresh RI is a key part of a robust public/private network of community partners and government agencies working to address the problem of hunger and inequitable access to fresh food, especially in Providence.

In the Valley neighborhood of Providence, just a few minutes from Olneyville, people wait in line to use their SNAP benefits at the Farm Fresh Providence Farmers Market, at 10 Sims Avenue. In Rhode Island, and Providence more specifically, hunger is a major issue. One in every three households in Rhode Island is food insecure. Because of racial inequalities, food insecurity disproportionately impacts people of color and their families, according to the Rhode Island Community Food Bank’s 2022 report. Those facing food insecurity are more likely to experience health issues and poor nutrition due to lack of access to the quality, fresh, and nourishing food that a healthy, varied diet requires. Farm Fresh RI addresses these challenges.

At participating farmers markets across the state, customers who receive federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits are eligible for Farm Fresh’s Bonus Bucks program that matches SNAP purchases 100%, doubling their spending power for fruit, vegetables, and herbs from local farms. One farmers market customer explained, “[I’m] so happy I am able to use my food stamps here. I would not be able to enjoy it if they were not accepted.”

Farm Fresh runs six seasonal outdoor farmers markets, three of which are in Providence, at Armory Park, Broad Street and Neutacokunut Park. The Farm Fresh indoor market at 10 Sims Avenue, is open Saturdays all year round. Other markets, like the Sankofa Market pictured below, still participate in the Bonus Buck program.

Farm Fresh RI also accepts SNAP benefits and Bonus Bucks from customers who order curbside pickup purchases through Market Mobile, the nonprofit’s local food e-commerce and distribution service. Hunger relief agencies in Rhode Island can order local food for their customers using Farm Fresh’s Market Mobile platform through the Farm to Food Pantry (FTFP) program. Since its beginning, thirty-one agencies have benefitted from this grant-funded program. Combined, the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program and Farm to Food Pantry program have sourced food from forty-six Rhode Island growers and sent over $240,000 in payments to those programs. These programs have addressed hunger in Rhode Island while strengthening the local food system and local farmers.

Another vital program, Farm Fresh’s Hope’s Harvest, mobilizes volunteers directly into the fields to harvest surplus fruits and vegetables, a practice known as “gleaning.” Sarah, a Hope’s Harvest volunteer says gleaning “is a great way to just be outside and use my body, and it’s also really helped me to better understand the local agriculture system and have even greater respect for the work that farmers do.” On any given summer or fall day during the growing season, a group of volunteer gleaners can be found on at least one of many farms throughout the state recovering produce that will be distributed to partner hunger-relief agencies.

Gleaners at Arcadia Farms gather “surplus” produce left after a commercial harvest.

Since Hope’s Harvest was founded in 2018, more than seven hundred volunteers have spent over 6,300 hours harvesting more than 837,000 pounds of fresh, local fruits and vegetables from fifty-one farms across Rhode Island and Southeastern Massachusetts. This produce has been distributed to forty-nine hunger relief agencies in RI, including Providence agencies such as Olneyville Food Center, the Community Action Partnership of Providence (CAPP), West End Community Center, and the Rhode Island Community Food Bank.

Jackie, the Pantry Coordinator at Olneyville Food Center, elaborates on why it’s important for pantries to receive fresh produce from Hope’s Harvest: “The majority of the food that we get on a regular basis is canned goods and dry foods, so for us it also is very important that our clients get a good dose of fresh vegetables and fruit. Hope’s Harvest has been able to provide us with fruit and vegetables every week.”

Farm Fresh’s hunger relief programming also targets food insecurity among seniors with its Seniors Farmers Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP). With this, seniors receive boxes of local produce from their local senior centers. This USDA-funded program provides low-income seniors with access to locally grown fruits, vegetables, honey and herbs, all of which are purchased from Rhode Island farmers. In 2022, over 9,500 hunger relief boxes were distributed by Farm Fresh RI at ninety-two locations in RI, including St. Martin de Porres Senior Center, Federal Hill House, and The DaVinci Center in Providence.

Example of Senior Farmers Market delivery.

Farm Fresh RI next year will have been targeting food insecurity by growing the food system and nurturing the state’s farms for two full decades. By partnering with farmers and hunger relief agencies, mobilizing volunteers, and securing grant funding, Farm Fresh’s programs increase healthy food access and food security for Rhode Islanders and strengthen community resilience.

Learn more at farmfreshri.org.

Brooke Warner was born and raised in Rhode Island and graduated from Brown University with a degree in International Relations. Interested in food justice and sustainable agriculture, she joined Farm Fresh RI as an AmeriCorps VISTA member.

She enjoys working with RI farmers and volunteers and values the opportunity to get her hands dirty on local farms recovering food to increase access to local, fresh food in her home state.