Q & A with Jesse Rye

Jesse Rye – Submitted photo

You are the executive director of Farm Fresh Rhode Island. Can you give us an overview, including a bit of the history?

Farm Fresh RI was founded in 2004 with the mission of growing a local food system that values the environment, health, and quality of life of Rhode Island farmers and eaters. Farm Fresh Rhode Island has grown from a two-person staff and an operating budget of $30,000 in 2006 to a nationally recognized food systems organization with over 50 employees and an annual operating budget of more than $6 million in 2023. 

Farm Fresh Rhode Island operates a range of innovative programs that enhance the local food system of Rhode Island and the broader Northeast region, with particular attention to farm viability and access to fresh food regardless of economic status. Our programs are as follows:

● Food Access: Farm Fresh manages farmers markets and operates nutrition incentive programs such as SNAP-match to subsidize the purchase of locally grown produce for low-income communities statewide. In particular, we manage farmers markets in low- to moderate-income urban neighborhoods, providing access to high-quality locally grown food. Incentives – or Bonus Bucks –  are given as tokens or credit redeemed for fresh produce and are distributed at 1:1 value for the amount of federal benefit used.

Community Education & Farm to School: Farm Fresh RI educates the broader public, from children to senior citizens, on local food systems and food preparation in school and community settings across the state through cafeteria taste tests, local food marketing campaigns, cooking demonstrations and other in-person programs. On a broader level, we serve as an anchor organization on the RI Farm to School Network leadership committee. This group is  focusing on getting more local food on public school cafeteria plates and getting more information on food and farming in classrooms and depends on Farm Fresh RI to enact and implement many of the projects and work needed.

Harvest Kitchen: Farm Fresh RI hosts a paid culinary job training and supported internship program for youth in state custody through the Department of Children Youth and Families (DCYF) on-site at a cafe and training kitchen in Pawtucket. This program works to improve the lives of youth that participate and also makes valuable contributions to our local food system by serving as a training space and a processing kitchen for local farmers. Harvest Kitchen works to align our training with a range of social services that are needed for the students to make positive choices in the future.

Hope’s Harvest: The newest program of Farm Fresh RI , Hope’s Harvest mobilizes volunteers to harvest surplus fruits and vegetables from farms, contracts with local growers, and pays for surplus produce — all for distribution to hunger relief agencies throughout Rhode Island. Hope’s Harvest is currently the lead for a statewide partnership for the Local Food Purchase Agreement (LFPA) and is working with the Commercial Fisheries Center of Rhode Island, the African Alliance of Rhode Island, Southside Community Land Trust to connect local farmers, particularly those who have been traditionally underserved.

 ● Market Mobile: A local food aggregation and distribution program delivering to a variety of customers including residential, wholesale and institutional buyers. In 2022, Market Mobile worked with over 125 farmers and food businesses to generate $3.8 million in sales on their behalf.  We sell fresh fruits and vegetables, proteins, dairy, eggs, and many other prepared and lightly processed products. We focus on local and regional growers and partnerships with many new products coming from incubator spaces such as Commonwealth Kitchen and Hope & Main. In 2023, Farm Fresh Rhode Island secured a contract with the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) for the implementation of COVID Supply Chain Assistance funds (SCA-Hub) and the Local Food for Schools Program (LFS) to bring local food to K-12 schools across the state.

Your headquarters is in a large building in Providence. What else is located there?

In the fall of 2020, Farm Fresh Rhode Island completed construction and moved into a new food hub facility in central Providence. The space represented a $20 million investment in the local food system and is 60,000 square feet of new infrastructure on a 3.3-acre parcel of land adjacent to downtown Providence. 

Since the building’s completion in 2020,  Farm Fresh Rhode Island has overseen the leasing and buildout of eight rental units for food- and farm-related businesses. Current tenants include: New Harvest Coffee & Spirits, Tallulah’s Taqueria, Rhedd’s Hot Sauce, Providence Brewing Company, Anchor Toffee, Red Tomato, Robin Hollow Farm and Wright’s Creamery.  This vibrant new location has quickly become a hub of activity and a space for special events and creative marketplaces.  As an example, in spring of 2023 Farm Fresh Rhode Island hosted Farm to Institution New England’s Northeastern Summit as the first major conference since opening. It was a great example of how the space is used for community events and a gathering space for dialogue on improving local and regional food systems. 

We found on your site the “50 by 60” Vision. What is it?

Farm Fresh Rhode Island has adopted Food Solutions New England’s Regional Food Vision as a guiding vision for our organization. The result of a planning process that included key stakeholders from across the regions – the New England Food Vision is a bold call to action for our region to build the capacity to produce at least 50% of our food by 2060 while supporting healthy food for all, sustainable farming and fishing, and thriving communities. You can learn more about Food Solutions New England here.

Any plans for future expansion of your mission and programs?

After coming through a major period of growth that resulted in our new building, the focus of 2024 will be making sure that all of our work aligns with the needs of farmers and eaters in our state. In particular – we see a lot of room for growth with our new kitchen that just opened at the end of 2023. This will be a space where we can work with small-scale farmers to process what they are growing and help them gain access into new markets like colleges and K-12 schools. We will be undergoing a strategic planning process in 2024 and by the end of the year will have more to share about the future direction of the organization.

How does Farm Fresh Rhode Island factor in climate change as you move forward?

All of the work of Farm Fresh is intended to reduce the effects of our food system on the environment. We are working to build a resilient local system that can withstand shocks to the global system – like we saw during COVID in 2020 – that also uses less fossil fuel and limits the miles that food travels before reaching the end user. In practice, this means forging strong local and regional connections that benefit farmers and food producers and put them in a place for continued success. From a building and facilities perspective – we have installed a 30,000 square foot solar array on the top of our building that offsets the electricity of our organization. We also work to keep the nearby Woonasquatucket River clean by capturing 100% of stormwater and runoff on site.

And lastly, Jesse, tell us a bit about yourself: the road that led you to Farm Fresh Rhode Island.

I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin that was surrounded by small family farms. In my lifetime that part of Wisconsin has seen the consolidation of those smaller family farms into concentrated animal feeding operations for the dairy industry that are jeopardizing the environment and quality of life of residents in nearby communities – including where my parents and most of my family still live.

This sad reality was in the back of my mind as I left Wisconsin to attend graduate school at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. I studied Public Policy with a focus on arts and cultural institutions and this degree led me to work at the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies and later the Maryland State Arts Council. During my time at both of these organizations I was drawn to how food, farming and care for our environment overlapped with the other vital elements of creative and resilient communities.

After meeting my wife Emily on a blind date – I moved to Rhode Island in 2011 as we started our new life together and she completed her Masters Degree from the Rhode Island School of Design. When a new position of Managing Director opened up at Farm Fresh RI I was able to convince them that despite my lack of food systems experience, the other skills I brought to the table could help the organization grow and thrive into the future. I have been at Farm Fresh for almost 12 of its 20 years in existence – and I am so proud of the work we do and all the folks here that bring their best to work every day on behalf of our mission.