Planning for Rhode Island’s food future

URI brings together stakeholders for 7th Annual R.I. Food System Summit

KINGSTON, R.I. – Jan. 26, 2023 – More than 350 people have tuned in to learn about and discuss Rhode Island’s food future as part of the 7th Annual Rhode Island Food System Summit. Hosted by the University of Rhode Island, the summit focused on “Setting the Table for a 2030 Food Vision” and featured an update from Rhode Island Commerce Corp. Director of Food Strategy Julianne Stelmaszyk. Also featured was a keynote address by author Sophie Egan, an authority on food’s impact on human and environmental health, and a discussion of Matunuck Shellfish Hatchery and Research Center, a new partnership between the University and Matunuck Oyster Farm.

Speakers also focused on efforts to grow and innovate aquaculture and agriculture within the state.
This was the 7th Annual Rhode Island Food System Summit hosted by the University of Rhode Island.

The food summit was organized by the URI Business Engagement Center and the Rhode Island Food Center at URI. “We are so thrilled to once again host this annual event bringing together government, academic, business, and community leaders to move Rhode Island’s food system into the future,” said Katharine Hazard Flynn, executive director of the BEC, who emceed the day’s events. “Rhode Island’s food sector is one of its largest, supporting tens of thousands of jobs and billions in economic output. Working together, we have an opportunity to build a more resilient, sustainable and equitable food system for our state while strengthening our economy.”

“As the state’s land and sea grant institution, URI is at the forefront of research and innovation – especially in agriculture and aquaculture innovation,” said URI President Marc Parlange in welcoming the group. As an example, he noted Vice President Kamala Harris’ recent trip to the Philippines where she met with members of a URI team leading an international initiative to create sustainable fisheries in the country.

“URI is the ideal convener for this summit,” said Parlange. “We have big plans and a vision to advance aquaculture and agricultural technology in Rhode Island, to support the growth of the state’s food industry and meet the growing needs of the food system – from controlled environment agriculture, to expanding the oyster industry and fisheries within the state.”   

Stelmaszyk discussed the development of Relish Rhody 2.0, the second iteration of the state’s food strategy, and state efforts to develop and support initiatives that increase long-term food security, promote access to healthy and locally grown foods and support economic development in the food sector. Introduced in 2017, the five core areas of the initial Relish Rhody were to preserve and strengthen Rhode Island’s agriculture and fisheries industries; enhance the climate for food and beverage businesses within the state; create and sustain new market opportunities for Rhode Island food products; minimize and divert food waste and ensure access to healthy and culturally relevant foods for all.

Stelmaszyk noted numerous new programs and investments in the state’s food system incorporating both state and federal dollars to grow markets, spur innovation, expand and introduce new partnerships, and support those in need. However, while improvements have been made in the past six years, Stelmaszyk says that benefits have been distributed unevenly. As the state begins its planning process for Relish Rhody 2.0, Stelmaszyk pledges to take this fact into account.

“Today, one in three Rhode Island households can’t afford adequate food and, unfortunately, this rate is even higher for single parents and communities of color,” said Stelmaszyk. “We cannot accept this reality.”

She explained that inflation, the impact of weather on crops as well as supply chain issues all play a role in this – but added that, with Rhode Island importing more than 90% of its food, investing in a more regional food system can help to drive more positive social, economic and environmental outcomes.

“Our new vision needs to outline a compelling response to the lessons learned during the pandemic. It should leverage and strengthen networks and scale proven models for success,” said Stelmaszyk as she listed her guiding priorities: thinking regionally; acknowledging the inextricable connection between food systems and climate; addressing social inequities; and building on our strengths. By importing what we can’t grow in volume – like dairy and grains – and exporting what we can – like seafood – she said we can build adaptability and resilience into our food system and bring us closer to our goals of producing 30% of our food regionally by 2030 and 50% regionally by 2060.

Through its College of the Environment and Life Sciences and other colleges within the University, as well as through Cooperative Extension, URI has been instrumental in working to address issues such as nutrition education, food insecurity and food waste. The University has lent support and expertise to, and worked closely with, industry and community partners to expand and innovate aquaculture and agriculture within the state.

One such example is the partnership between the University and Matunuck Oyster Farm, founded and owned by URI graduate Perry Raso ’02, M.S. ’06, to establish the Matunuck Shellfish Hatchery and Research Center. The full-scale hatchery will not only help to expand the industry within Rhode Island by providing oyster seed within and beyond the state’s borders, it will also be a place for research.

The new hatchery will be Rhode Island’s third. The supply of oyster seed for farms on the East Coast of the United States is limited leading to shortages at times – something Raso has experienced himself. The hatchery would seek to fill that need, supplying seed to oyster farms up and down the coast. 

In addition to providing oyster seed, the new hatchery will also work to cultivate alternative species such as bay scallops, sea urchin or even different seaweeds. With University experts lending their knowledge and Matunuck Oyster Farm and Bar functioning essentially as a “test kitchen” with a captive audience, Raso sees opportunity to develop something desirable for more mainstream markets.

Raso and others in the aquaculture industry have come to rely on the University as an important resource – counting on the knowledge and support of experts at URI to help them problem solve. Ticking off a variety of issues impacting the growth and mortality of oyster crops, Raso explained, “Over the years, we – and other farmers in Rhode Island – have always been fortunate to be able to lean on URI to get answers to those questions.”

In speaking with Marta Gomez-Chiarri, professor of Fisheries, Animal and Veterinary Sciences, Raso expressed the importance of public support to continue building the industry. “Whereas the farms can be a huge ask – we’re using the public trust – at the same time it (farming) is improving the water quality and habitat and biodiversity. So, there’s a balance,” he said.

Gomez-Chiarri added, “We need aquaculture if we want to continue to eat seafood because we can’t rely only on harvesting in the wild. It’s not sustainable – so we do require farming. And farming can be done well – or it can be done really badly.” She went on, “It’s up to us to figure out how to farm in a way that is sustainable, environmentally conscious and serves to provide food that is accessible at a good price.”

Keynote speaker Egan echoed these sentiments of balance and the interconnectedness of our food system with environmental impacts and climate throughout her remarks. “I get excited about the role that food-related climate solutions can play,” she said. “Climate, in particular, is so overwhelming and daunting – but many of the solutions actually do lie in food and agriculture.”

Prior to closing the summit, Flynn announced several breakout sessions scheduled in the coming months that are designed to build on and offer additional opportunity for discussion on a variety of important topics discussed during the summit. They are:

Thursday, Feb. 16  Good Food Jobs: Cultivating People to Elevate the Food System
Date, TBD        Preserving & Growing Agriculture & Seafood Industries
Date, TBD        Local Food for Local Kids: Understanding the Farm to School Market
Tuesday, April 11  Cultivating Food Innovation and Entrepreneurship

For additional information and registration details for upcoming breakout sessions, or to watch the 2023 Rhode Island Food System Summit in its entirety, visit: .