URI to launch food initiative advancing local food production

The food sector in Rhode Island is booming, with growers, researchers, distributors and consumers ripe for new collaborations and initiatives to improve food security and food safety, support local farmers, and grow the local economy. The University of Rhode Island is harnessing that enthusiasm by launching the URI Food Center, a resource center on its Kingston campus where stakeholders can seek answers, find partners, create innovations, and educate consumers.

“Rhode Island is the only state in the nation with a director of food strategy, so we’re already ahead of the curve. The timing is perfect for the establishment of this new program, and the University of Rhode Island is the perfect place to host it,” said URI President David M. Dooley. “We have the agricultural expertise and the business innovation expertise to help drive Rhode Island’s food economy.”

“We want to focus all of the state’s food assets here at URI, since so many of its resources are already here,” said John Kirby, dean of the URI College of the Environment and Life Sciences, which will administer the initiative. “The Food Center will serve as a portal where stakeholders can have easy access to URI’s agriculture extension professionals, scientists, and business experts, and where our students will have unique opportunities to connect with the industry and get practical experience in the food sector.”

The initiative will be based at an existing building adjacent to acres and acres of agricultural fields where URI scientists conduct research on a wide variety of crops. The building will be renovated over the next 10 months to include a food preparation area where produce can be minimally processed for use on campus; laboratory space for the testing of soil, water and other elements; a meeting area for convening stakeholders; and office space for URI’s agriculture extension staff.

The Food Center is the brainchild of Dan Levinson, principal of Main Street Resources, a niche private equity firm that partners with local entrepreneurs. The former chair of the Schumacher Center for New Economics, he has evolved his business into a platform for entrepreneurial philanthropy, with the food sector being a primary interest. Main Street Resources will provide the initial funding to establish the Center.

“The food system in Rhode Island is on fire in a lot of ways,” Levinson said. “There’s a lot of innovation already going on among the farmers, fishers, entrepreneurs, non-profits and universities, and this new initiative is a great way to facilitate even more. It will create a flow of activity into our communities and the marketplace.”

The Center is a program of URI’s College of the Environment and Life Sciences (CELS) in partnership with Main Street Resources, the URI College of Business and the URI Business Engagement Center. It will be overseen by an independent board of directors appointed by the CELS dean and chaired by Levinson.

Part of the focus of the Food Center will be directed toward students and the URI community. It will aim to substantially increase the quantity of locally-grown food served in the URI dining halls; study the issue of food insecurity among URI students; establish student-led food-related organizations on campus; create community gardens maintained by students, faculty and staff; and perhaps establish a Community Supported Agriculture program that will enable local residents to subscribe to the harvest of local farmers and the campus garden. The Center will also provide learning opportunities for students in URI’s new major in sustainable agriculture and food systems…[Read more]