The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Alexa Gagosz at email@example.com.
Approximately 25 percent of Rhode Islanders experienced food insecurity in 2020 — up 11 percent from prior to the pandemic, according to Vanessa Venturini. And yet, about 100,000 pounds of wasted food enters the Johnston landfill each year.
“As waste enters the landfill, it starts to break down and emit greenhouse gases which contribute to climate change,” said Venturini, who is overseeing a new program that is designed to address the issues of food waste and food security. “Much of this food could have been repurposed for feeding people, animals, creating energy or generating compost. This is the essence of food recovery — finding the highest and best way to manage wasted food to benefit the planet, people and the economy.”
The program, Food Recovery for Rhode Island, looks to “rescue” and recycle food by altering how Rhode Islanders shop for, store, prepare, preserve, and compost it. It was funded by a $100,000 educational grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Amanda Missimer, a clinical assistant professor of nutrition and food sciences at the University of Rhode Island, co-founded the program and is developing the course.
Q: What are the implications if we don’t address food waste and hunger soon?
Missimer: The pandemic has exposed a lot of systemic issues with our food system. It ranges from the rising cost of food, the increasing number of people seeking food assistance, and the disruption of the supply chain. All of this on top of the fact that our landfill is set to close in 2040 with no optimal alternative in sight. It’s time to come together, build upon some of the amazing work that resulted from this crisis and rethink our local food system.
Q: What is Food Recovery for Rhode Island and how does it work?
Venturini: The mission is to come together around the issues of food waste, food security and the environment, learn something new, engage in dialogue, and volunteer to support community-driven change. It’s a community education program from the University of Rhode Island Cooperative Extension. First you learn something new, then you take action to strengthen the local food system.
[This program includes a] six-week course, which is a mix of online and field experience held in kitchens and on farms each week. The educational component is delivered by university experts, practitioners working in the field of food recovery, and community members sharing their lived experience. If you enroll, you’ll learn how to can your own food, to store your food properly, composting methods — everything you need to make changes in your own life to make the most of your food. Then you’ll volunteer in the community on projects designed to feed people rather than sending food to the landfill.
Q: What do people do during the internship part of the program?
Venturini: It will be an opportunity to apply what you’ve learned and take action locally. Projects will be led by five community partner organizations working to rescue and recycle food. Those interning at Hope’s Harvest, for instance, will lead gleaning trips to local farms to recover surplus food that would otherwise not be harvested. Others will help grow Groundwork Rhode Island’s network of community compost hubs in Providence; join the Sankofa Initiative in sharing ways to prepare and preserve foods grown in the West Elmwood Housing Development Corporation’s community gardens; or help Rescuing Leftover Cuisine’s new Rhode Island chapter distribute leftover food from local restaurants. A fifth community partner will be added soon.
Q: How will this help the state?
Missimer: We’re using the train-the-trainer model. The concept of food recovery as a whole is not well known, so by training 120 volunteers in a state as small as Rhode Island, we hope to then reach 2,500 additional people and amplify our impact.
Q: Who is your target audience?
Venturini: Rather than the university’s traditional audience of college students, this program is designed for community members looking to make a difference as volunteer educators. We are modeling this after the URI Master Gardener Program, which reaches an estimated 30,000 people per year through trained volunteer educators. Financial awards are available and some individuals [associated with partner organizations] will receive peer educator stipends to return to their community and share food recovery techniques. Online applications close on Aug. 1.