5 Questions with Jesse Rye of Farm Fresh Rhode Island

Jesse Rye, Co-Executive Director at Farm Fresh Rhode Island explains the motives and mission behind his nonprofit organization.

Veggie Box
Jesse Rye of Farm Fresh Rhode Island

Jesse Rye is the Co-Executive Director of Food System Enterprise at Farm Fresh Rhode Island. He works with leadership staff to oversee the Market Mobile and Veggie Box programs, and directs the communications and financial management of the organization. We asked him a few questions about his nonprofit organization...

1. What is the mission of Farm Fresh RI?

Farm Fresh Rhode Island is a nonprofit organization dedicated to growing a local food system that values the environment, health and quality of life of Rhode Island farmers and eaters. Part incubator, part activator, we interact with local food, farmers and eaters on a variety of levels.

Each week we work with over 80 farmers and producers either through our farmers markets, market mobile distribution program or veggie box program. Our programs grow the local food system by building the capacity of producers, markets and eaters simultaneously. To achieve these ends, our programs work at the intersection of three main areas: wholesale aggregation & distribution; culinary production and education; and public markets.

2. What is the history of the organization?

Louella Hill and Noah Fulmer founded farm Fresh Rhode Island in 2004 with the intent of better connecting farmers to consumers. Both graduates of Brown University, the two founded the organization directly out of school. The intent was not simply to help farmers sell more products, but to encourage changes to Rhode Island’s food system.

By creating a healthier, more flavorful, diverse agricultural landscape Farm Fresh aimed to preserve open space, protect family farms and help rebuild Rhode Island’s food infrastructure. Farm Fresh started doing that work by creating a local food guide for Rhode Island and southeastern New England that gave people the necessary information they needed to become local shoppers. At the same time Farm Fresh opened a farmers market to help connect farmers with consumers. From there, the organization has continued to grow dramatically. For example, Farm Fresh now manages a wintertime farmers market which has grown to be the biggest winter market in New England.

Ten years later, Farm Fresh manages 8 markets in low-income neighborhoods throughout Rhode Island. SNAP benefits are accepted at all Farm Fresh markets and Farm Fresh assistants the implementation of this system at other markets throughout the state. In 2013 there was over $100,000 spent in SNAP benefits with Farm Fresh markets. With support from many funders, the Bonus Bucks program supplements SNAP users’ benefits at farmers markets by providing an extra 40% in tokens for fruit and vegetable purchases – an additional $40,000 in 2013. Healthy Foods, Healthy Families, a bilingual 16-week program for low-income families, with learning activities for both parents and children is presented at 5 markets and two community centers.

In 2009 Market Mobile debuted – an aggregation and distribution program designed from the ground up around the needs of small farmers. Every week of the year, 60 family farms and small food producers in Rhode Island and Massachusetts list their fresh produce, honey, eggs, dairy, meat and more for sale to wholesale customers in Rhode Island and Boston. The Market Mobile online ordering software pools together sales, delivery and invoicing so that the farmers and producers can focus on growing food and drop off all of their customers’ orders at the warehouse. Buyers just have one order form, delivery, and invoice to deal with no matter how many farms they buy from.

The Veggie Box program, started in 2011, is a subscription of fresh local food sourced from RI and MA farms delivered weekly to businesses, providing easy access to fresh produce for people all over Rhode Island. Veggie Box uses the strengths of the Market Mobile infrastructure to better serve individuals, workplaces and institutions. In the past two years, the program has quickly grown to meet the great demand from workplaces for easy access to fresh, healthy local foods.

3. What produce is Rhode Island known for?

Rhode Island doesn’t have a signature agricultural product – meaning no equivalent to the Georgia peach. With that said, Rhode Island is a great agricultural state. In particular, the coastal climate and soils of Rhode Island are perfect for growing potatoes. We also have fantastic orchards. Our state fruit is the Rhode Island Greening apple – an American heirloom variety that dates back to the 17th century. It’s known for its crispness and tartness and it makes a perfect apple pie. We focus a lot on agriculture, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the thriving and growing Rhode Island aquaculture industry. Rhode Island oysters are the best!

Overall, Rhode Island is building a well-deserved reputation as a food destination. A big reason for that are the chefs, grocers and customers that prioritize supporting local farmers. In turn, we have farmers that are dedicated to growing the best produce they can.

4. What are some of the food events that Farm Fresh is involved with? What can we expect at them?

Our annual event is the Local Food Fest. It takes place August 5th at Castle Hill in Newport. The Local Food Fest is an evening celebrating Rhode Island farmers, fishermen and food artisans. It features two-dozen local farmers and producers, teamed up with chefs from Castle Hill, the Newport Restaurant Group and many more. The event features local wines, beers, cocktails, live music, a photo booth, raffle and silent auction. It’s always a beautiful night filled with amazing food and a spectacular sunset.

5. What is Farm Fresh doing with students?

In addition to the programs listed above we also operate the Harvest Kitchen Project and the Rhode Island Farm to School Program. Our Harvest Kitchen Project is a 15-week culinary and job-readiness training program for youth within the Division of Juvenile Corrections. The youth work to create a line of high-quality preserved foods using ingredients sourced from local farmers at a certified kitchen in Providence.

Our culinary training and education consists of: orientation to food service industry; basic methods of cooking and food preservation techniques; weights & measurements; herbs & spices; kitchen brigade and its philosophy; food ordering and kitchen preparation; sales and marketing of the food products; nutrition fundamentals; knife skills & identification; safety & first aid; field education at RI farms; understanding & participation in local farm sourcing; and food systems literacy

Products made in the Harvest Kitchen are sold at local stores, farmers markets and to wholesale customers via our Market Mobile program. In the long-term, proceeds from sales will sustain the Harvest Kitchen program. We envision forging strong partnerships in the community that benefit farmers and provide healthy options for consumers, restaurants and institutional food service buyers. The Harvest Kitchen staff also aims to foster good relationships with employers who provide employment/internship opportunities to our graduates to further their job readiness and employable job skills.

The Rhode Island Farm to School Project began in 2004 at Kids First and now continues at Farm Fresh Rhode Island as a part of our mission to connect every Rhode Islander with fresh, local food. At the same time that obesity and diabetes are occurring at record rates among children, the Farm to School Project empowers youth to think critically about the food they eat, to learn about nearby farms and how food is produced, and to taste for themselves that healthy, fresh foods can be super delicious. Paired with programs like Harvest Kitchen and Healthy Foods, Healthy Families, the Farm to School Project is a critical part of Farm Fresh's strategy for fostering a culture of healthy eating in the next generation of eaters.

Published May 17th, 2014