We have made much progress in recent years in understanding the correlation between the health of a population and the nature of the food it consumes.
We know that a healthy diet requires a large percentage of fresh fruits and vegetables, and we are beginning to understand that the fresher those foods the higher their nutritional values, which means that the shorter the distance that foods travel between production and consumption the better they are for us. And so in recent years our attention has turned to the ability of a community, or region, to produce more of its own food. A reduced reliance on imported foods would also benefit by making a region's food supply less subject to disruption following the hazards predicted by climate change. The movement towards producing more food locally also highlights the need to preserve traditional farming techniques and farmland, increasingly lost to urban development.
Regional food plans such as Food Solutions New England and the initiatives of the Rhode Island Food Policy Council call for the creation of food systems* and a dramatic increase in locally produced foods. If these plans are to be successful there must be methods by which they can be enacted and successfully adopted within communities. The Island Commons Initiative proposes such a plan with initial strategies customized and implemented at the local level. Island stakeholders and other statewide and regional resources will work together to develop a blueprint for Aquidneck Island that will create an exciting vision for improving our health, food security, food access and environmental and economic resilience through its implementation, offering strategic benefits for all citizens of the island and a model program for achievement of state and regional plans.
*“A community food system is a food system in which food production, processing, distribution and consumption are integrated to enhance the environmental, economic, social and nutritional health of a particular place. A community food system can refer to a relatively small area, such as a neighborhood, or progressively larger areas — towns, cities, counties, regions, or bioregions. The concept of community food systems is sometimes used interchangeably with "local" or "regional" food systems, but by including the word "community" there is an emphasis on strengthening existing (or developing new) relationships between all components of the food system. This reflects a prescriptive approach to building a food system, one that holds sustainability - economic, environmental and social — a long-term goal toward which a community strives.”
— Discovering the Food System, Cornell University
Planning and action are urgently needed to preserve natural resources and land that could be available for food production, both cultivated and wild. We need to preserve fisheries, farmland, clean water and soils. Historically, Aquidneck Island has been an important center of agricultural production. Many now project that as sea level rises, coastal residents will look to the interior of the island for new housing development creating increased pressure for consensus around land use.
We need better data on the amount of food produced and consumed on Aquidneck Island, and on the intersections within the food web. New England is estimated as producing 11 percent of its own food, Rhode Island just 1 percent.
And we must intentionally include the food needs of economically disadvantaged in these plans or they will continue to be excluded from health and resources. Advocates for low income residents interviewed in our needs assessment last year repeatedly reminded us of the many challenges their clients face in participating in local food consumption: cost, transportation, access, knowledge, etc. The phenomenal growth of farmers’ markets and farm-to-table dining can easily mislead us to think that all are being served.
We observe also that health care costs are soaring, with many of these costs deriving from preventable diseases. Improved diets, defined as including a high percentage of fresh foods and a low percentage of processed foods, would prevent many of these diseases.
- 15.5 percent of Rhode Island households lack enough nutritious food to keep every family member active and healthy. This number was 13.7 percent in 2009. USDA 2012
- Over 30 percent of low income children in Rhode Island between the ages of 2 and 5 are overweight or obese. Center for Disease Control 2012
- Children and adolescents who are overweight and obese are at an increased risk for Type 2 diabetes, asthma, heart disease, and other acute and chronic health problems. Nationally, the prevalence of childhood obesity has more than tripled in recent decades, growing from 5 percent of children in 1980 to 17 percent in 2008. RI Kids Count Factbook 2010
- Being overweight or obese reduces a population’s life expectancy by 4-8 years; currently 63 percent of Rhode Island residents are overweight or obese. Rhode Island Academy of Family Physicians 2014
Greater access to affordable healthy foods, and the understanding of their importance, will lead to dietary change. The resulting increase in demand for fresh food sources will require an increase in production of foods grown locally. With much agricultural land already lost to development, in combination with the challenges of the financial viability of farming as a way of life, new solutions must be found to meet these problems. Every community must become engaged in finding sustainable and appropriate answers to these questions. In order to do this, the food conversation must find its way to the public's table.
- Rhode Island has lost more than 80 percent of farmland since 1945.
- Rhode Island currently produces between 1 percent and 2 percent of its own food.
- 83 percent of all farms in Rhode Island have less than 50K in annual income. Rhode Island Department of Agriculture
Investment in growing our local food system has real economic impact. Our food supply can become more secure and resilient.
- Estimated household spending on food: 12.7 percent of household spending or $2,244,217,000
- Amount of that figure currently spent on local food products: 1 percent or $22,442,170
- Economic impact of a 9 percent shift to purchasing locally: $201,979,530
- Jobs created related directly to 9 percent shift (2.2 jobs per $100,000): 4,443 jobs. Rhode Island Department of Health/Rhode Island Academy of Family Physicians
Rhode Islanders who now go without food and lack access to healthy food choices can be included rather than excluded if we plan and act together to meet this community need. We can improve our personal health and the health of our ecosystems, and with less cost over the long term, by eating better, growing more food responsibly and by reconnecting to the land and water that sustain us.