URI Master Gardeners launch initiative to connect Rhode Islanders to local food system

KINGSTON, R.I. – May 13, 2020 – University of Rhode Island Master Gardeners have launched an initiative to encourage Rhode Islanders to develop a stronger connection to the local food system, an effort they say is especially important during and after the pandemic.

The initiative aims to encourage residents to grow a portion of their own food, compost their food waste, donate a portion of their harvest to local food pantries, and support locally-grown food by attending farmers markets, purchasing products from the local section of supermarkets, and supporting restaurants that serve local food when they re-open.

“Our food system focus area has a new sense of purpose and urgency as the pandemic has revealed the fragility of the global food system and increased demand for food assistance,” said Vanessa Venturini, state coordinator of the Master Gardener program, based at URI’s College of the Environment and Life Sciences. “A strong local food system is one where Rhode Islanders not only have access to healthy food, but they have the knowledge to grow a portion of their own food and compost their food waste. It’s one where consumers choose locally-grown food and where children have access to school gardens, connecting people to healthy food from a young age.”

The initiative includes multiple elements, some of which have been delayed due to the pandemic.

In partnership with Hope’s Harvest RI, a Pawtucket-based organization sponsored by Farm Fresh Rhode Island, the Master Gardeners will organize volunteers to collect surplus produce from local farms to deliver to hunger relief agencies in a practice called gleaning. Hope’s Harvest RI has gleaned more than 100,000 pounds of produce in the last two years that would have otherwise gone to waste.

With training from Eva Agudelo, the founder of Hope’s Harvest, the gardeners will build relationships with local farmers and lead gleaning trips with volunteers to bring locally-grown food to those in need.

The Master Gardeners also plan to partner with the Southside Community Land Trust in Providence to help community gardeners be more successful in growing their own food. They will especially target recent immigrants who want to grow food from their native countries but who may not be familiar with local growing conditions.

“We’re especially excited about this because we’ll be helping local residents grow food from around the world and teaching people how they can still have culturally appropriate food in Rhode Island by growing it themselves,” said Venturini. “It will be a fun challenge to work with people who speak so many different languages, but we hope that with the use of pictures and local translators we’ll succeed in helping local residents get their hands in the soil and grow their own food.”

The Master Gardeners hope to establish “teaching plots” to demonstrate gardening strategies at the Charles Street Community Garden and the Brattle Street Garden in Providence, as well as at the Garfield Avenue Community Garden in Central Falls.

In addition, the Master Gardeners are also partnering with more than 70 schools around the state to help establish and sustain school gardens as outdoor classrooms to connect children to their food from an early age. More than 40 new school garden mentors will be trained this spring through the Master Gardeners’ web-based School Garden Academy.

“We are rapidly adapting to web-based teaching methods, with an emphasis on vegetable gardening classes for those interested in ‘victory gardens’ to increase their food sovereignty,” Venturini said.

Free gardening webinars and related services are available to all interested gardeners through the URI Cooperative Extension website at https://web.uri.edu/coopext/ The University’s Gardening and Environmental Hotline also remains accessible via email (gardener@uri.edu) for those seeking research-based gardening advice.

The Master Gardeners’ food system initiative is expected to last for at least three years.