Another effort — to place the produce of local farms in area schools — has grown dramatically in recent years. The goal for this year is to involve every school district in the state. (Summer markets in Rhode Island, in keeping with a national trend, have roughly doubled, to 37, over the past four years.)
Amid all this growth, placing local products with big food retailers can remain a challenge, as does the relative paucity of land for growing in Rhode Island.
Yet for the local chefs and other enthusiasts who enjoy the freshness of Rhode Island-produced food, the growth of the movement in recent years has been a welcome development.
Matt Gennuso, who, with his wife Kristin, owns Chez Pascal in Providence, relishes the local connection that comes with farmers bringing their wares to the back door of the East Side establishment — a theme amplified with its "Menu Market Mondays."
"That's what I believe in," says Gennuso, who is the restaurant's chef. "I believe in keeping things as close to home as possible, whether it's a dry cleaner or supporting the small businesses around us. I'd much rather have food that's grown as close to us as possible. Typically, the quality is much better. That's really the bottom line."
LOCAL CONNECTION: "I believe in keeping things as close to home as possible," Gennuso says.
The making of a food evangelist
As a native of Freehold, New Jersey, Fulmer gained an appreciation for the value of fresh food by eating locally grown tomatoes, visiting a favorite farm stand, and admiring the extensive garden of a grandparent. As he puts it, "The more you eat local foods and you have those flavors, the more foods that are from far away and that are processed tasted a little bit off to you."
Later, when intense development pressure led to the loss of the farm stand, it served as a stark reminder of the precarious nature of local agriculture — and of the ensuing loss of distinct character in his hometown.
All this helped inspire Fulmer, a 2005 Brown University graduate, and Louella Hill, now the cheese-maker at Narragansett Creamery and Providence Specialty Products, to launch Farm Fresh Rhode Island, initially as a collaborative between Brown's Center for Environmental Studies, the Rhode Island Foundation, and the state Division of Agriculture, with help from a US Environmental Protection Agency grant. Still based in an Angell Street building at Brown that includes a greenhouse, the organization now has a four-person staff.
As suggested by the obstacles facing the potato growers, one of Farm Fresh's most significant efforts was closing the disconnection between farmers and chefs by creating a searchable Internet database (at farmfresh.org), enabling the latter to see who has what for sale and when. The site gets about 60,000 hits a month, "which is just insane," says Fulmer.
Beyond offering a form of developing small business, retaining farm land, and turning out high-quality products that taste good, the local food movement also offers a response to concerns about genetically modified products and tainted foods, as with the recent scare over peanut butter. More existentially, Rhode Island is said to have enough food to sustain the state just for a few days, if it didn't receive any imports, so expanding the local food supply is also a matter of self-sufficiency.