An Update from the Rhode Island Department of Health

Summer 2017

On Agriculture Day in May, Rhode Island released its first Food Strategy. This comprehensive vision for a food system in Rhode Island was developed with the input of multiple state agencies and community partners, under the guidance of Rhode Island’s (and the nation’s!) first-ever Director of Food Strategy.

The goal for the five-year strategy is to create a sustainable and equitable food system that celebrates and capitalizes on the unique strengths of Rhode Island’s food economy. Food is an integral part of our state’s history and culture. Farmers, fishermen, world-class restaurants, and unique food businesses are some of our many strengths. But for all the success surrounding the state’s food system, we still have a long way to go. Currently, more than a third of the food produced in the state ends up in the landfill. Meanwhile, 12% of residents do not know where their next meal will come from, and access to foods that provide adequate nutrition is not equitable across all communities. Many farmers and fishermen are struggling to make a living, and local food businesses face regulatory hurdles that impede growth.

In order to make progress toward a system that supports food businesses, large and small, while also ensuring that all Rhode Islanders have access to affordable, nutritious food, the strategy document is organized around three key themes: health and access, economic development, and environmental sustainability and resiliency. The plan aims to make an impact at the place where these three priorities intersect. This intersection is further broken out into five cross-cutting focus areas that will only be achieved through a collective impact strategy across the state.

The Department of Health (RIDOH) is proud to be one of the leaders in this effort to grow and strengthen Rhode Island’s food system. As co-chair of the Interagency Food and Nutrition Policy Advisory Council (IFNPAC), I am committed to supporting each of the five integrated focus areas. In particular, I see RIDOH leading the way with efforts that help enhance the climate for food and beverage businesses, creating and sustaining markets for these businesses, and ensuring food security for all Rhode Islanders. Through investments of time, funding, and staff, we are committed to improving the food system at all levels. We care deeply about the local food economy, making it a priority to invest in farmers and fishermen, and to bring farmers’ markets and mobile produce markets to communities with limited access to fresh and affordable produce. We are currently working to update and improve food regulations, making them more business-friendly and improving our customer service. We have worked with schools to increase local purchasing and have made local food procurement a priority within our own institution. We have led the way with policies that ensure access to nutritious foods in state buildings, and have developed a partnership with a local distributor to deliver freshly cut produce and healthful snacks to all coffee shops within state buildings.

Furthermore, through our Health Equity Zone (HEZ) initiative, we are hoping to impact the food system from the ground up. Each of our 10 HEZ partners has identified access to nutritious foods as a barrier to health equity in their community. We are working together to improve affordability and access to food for all residents, whether that means increasing locations where fruits and vegetables are available, encouraging nutritious food in worksites, or partnering with small retailers to increase availability of healthy meals and snacks. As the “boots on the ground” in their communities, our HEZ partners are instrumental in furthering the goals of the food strategy and the Department.

We look forward to working with our partners across the state to create a strong, equitable, and economically viable food system in Rhode Island. For more information about the development of the Food Strategy and to read the document, please visit Relish Rhody.