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Helping Rhode Island Communities Connect to Healthier Foods Through Collaboration

Everywhere you look, there seems to be new healthy food trends and different types of nutritious diets. But for far too many people, especially those living in low-income communities, eating healthy is simply out of reach. Finding fresh food means either traveling significant distances or paying excessive prices for low-quality produce, making healthy choices unaffordable and unattainable. Without access to healthy foods, communities across the nation, including here in Rhode Island, face risks such as obesity or other chronic health

issues. As concerns grow over the worsening obesity epidemic, our first step in facing this crisis starts with helping Rhode Islanders access fresh, locally grown food.

At Farm Fresh Rhode Island, we provide a variety of programs and services aimed at connecting the community with local farmers and food producers. For the past 13 years, Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island (BCBSRI) has partnered with us, initially by sponsoring our farmers markets and offering free health screenings, and most recently by providing the financial support for our interactive food and nutrition workshops.

As a local food hub, Farm Fresh Rhode Island aims to help improve every aspect of the local food system—which is the path food travels from growing and harvesting to processing, packaging, transporting, selling, eating and disposing of food. With Rhode Island's flourishing food scene, surrounding states' farmland, and shorter distances for food to travel, we've been able to model a sustainable and healthy system to connect farmers and eaters in the New England region.

Our focus extends to both ends of the system—starting with farmers and ending with consumers. Our Market Mobile and Veggie Box programs help New England farmers, fisher people and small businesses reach more customers. The Market Mobile wholesale distribution service allows food producers to price and sell their own local goods online to wholesale buyers, including restaurants, institutions, grocery stores, buying clubs, and schools. The platform provides advantages for both parties. Local farmers receive resources from us to promote and deliver their goods, while wholesalers have direct access to fresh, local produce. Since the program began in 2009, more than 150 wholesalers have bought $15.6 million (and counting) in food from local farmers through Market Mobile.

On a smaller scale, our fresh produce subscription, Veggie Box, directly gives consumers greater access to locally grown food and provides growers with a consistent sales outlet year-round. Every Veggie Box is packed with seasonal produce and is delivered to workplaces or public pickup sites throughout Rhode Island. Participants get a sneak peek before each delivery to help with meal planning and receive an e-newsletter with tips and recipes for each box. In 2017, more than $175,000 in local food was purchased through the Veggie Box subscription service.

Our focus on connecting local farmers and eaters also requires education within the community. As a Core Partner for the National Farm to School Network (NFSN), we offer RI Farm to School programming while serving as a liaison for information, resources, needs, and opportunities from the state with the NFSN. Our nutrition education programs for students and seniors offer hands-on opportunities and information needed to make smart choices. These programs are offered through school and after-school activities, senior centers, garden programs, and farmers markets.

Additionally, our farmers market nutrition education program for families receiving federal SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits — Healthy Foods, Healthy Families — empowers parents and children with the tools to shop for affordable, seasonal foods and prepare them in healthy, kid-friendly ways. For each week of participation, families receive free samples, games, recipes, financial incentives, and other bonuses. In 2016, Farm Fresh RI was awarded a BlueAngel Community Health Grant from BCBSRI to help bolster the program, which resulted in an expansion to nearly 500 low-income participating families. Due to its growing popularity and recognition, the program was extended this past season to seven farmers markets across Rhode Island.

Lastly, our Bonus Bucks nutrition incentives program offers an impressive 100 percent match for SNAP users at many Rhode Island farmers markets, CSAs, and farm stands — doubling the purchasing power of low-income Rhode Islanders to buy more nutritious foods while re-investing those federal dollars into the Rhode Island economy by directly supporting local growers and food businesses. For many people across our state, nutrition incentives make the critical difference in being able to shop for fresh food at farmers markets. Bonus Bucks enable a greater percentage of the community to take part — putting fresh, local foods within reach by making the healthy choice an easier choice for people with limited food budgets.

Ensuring that healthy food is accessible to all is crucial. We continue to strengthen our mission at Farm Fresh Rhode Island, but even as recognition of the problem is growing and progress is being made, between six and nine percent of all U.S. households are still without access to healthy food. We're grateful to BCBSRI for their partnership and look forward to helping provide affordable and accessible healthy choices to all Rhode Islanders.

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