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National Food Day is October 24 and in New England the day falls on a time of deep seasonality—the harvest. A time of pumpkins, whose orange roundness is a reminder of the warm August sun and is redolent with the shades of the falling leaves. It is a time of jack-o-lanterns, whose carved faces and flickering light lasts but briefly and is intended to haunt us. The days are growing shorter and colder. There is something in the air of autumn—perhaps the smell of it—that calls forth in us a desire for celebration and reflection. Food Day, a national celebration, can be a time for both celebration and reflection in our own state.
Rhode Island’s food system, according to calculations recently done by the Providence Plan for the Rhode Island Food Policy Council, provides employment to some 60,000 Rhode Islanders; only health care is a larger sector according to Department of Labor and Training statistics. Let us be grateful for these jobs, and reflect that local farming and fishing and food production, are a small fraction of this total. Much of what Rhode Islanders spend on food goes out of state. Think about the possible growth of employment in Rhode Island if more of our food dollars stayed here at home. Increased local food spending might well make us happier because we do enjoy the flavor, freshness and nutritional value of local food – berries in June, tomatoes and sweet corn in summer, fresh apples and squash in autumn, fresh fish and seafood harvested from our local waters.
In tourism circles, Rhode Island is renowned for its good food and top places to eat. Johnson & Wales University is a leader in culinary arts education. Calamari is the state’s official appetizer and Rhode Island harvested squid are exported internationally.
Yet Rhode Island has the highest levels of food insecurity in New England. Too many Rhode Islanders worry about where their meals are going to come from.
The situation has been growing worse; between 2008 and 2013 the number of people served monthly through the Rhode Island Community Food Bank grew from 37,000 people in 2008 to 68,000 people in 2013. The specter of hunger actually haunts Rhode Island. And this is disturbing.
Furthermore, the incidence of diet-related illness is not spread evenly across our population; it is concentrated in our low-income and minority populations. Inequality in health conditions is another and sad part of our reality and increasing access to healthier (local) foods across our state would benefit all Rhode Islanders.
On Food Day, October 24, let us both celebrate the wonders of the good sustenance and the plenty that is available here, but let us also reflect upon and resolve to do something about the real food inequities that haunt our culture.
Kenneth F. Payne is chairperson of the RI Food Policy Council and administrator of the Rhode Island Agricultural Partnership.