Farm-to-Fork critical for local farm ‘survival’

RWU hosts ‘Eat Local Challenge,’ highlighting local farms, fishers

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With a professionally trained chef running the show, Roger Williams University’s Dining Commons serves up a lot more than your typical cafeteria fare on even an ordinary day. On Tuesday, the school’s cooks took the culinary delights even further, supporting and promoting local agriculture along the way.

The school’s dining commons served students and visitors a selection of gourmet meals — including grilled swordfish steaks, beef stew, scallop ceviche, even a raw bar with oysters and littlenecks direct from Narragansett Bay — that were not only delicious, but as fresh as they can possibly be. Chef Jonathan Cambra is sure of that because every ingredient used Tuesday — every piece of meat or fish, every vegetable, even every herb and spice, except salt — originated less than 150 miles from the Bristol campus. 

That kind of locality not only has obvious benefits for local farmers, but also for cooks and diners.

“The advantage for us is everything is extremely fresh, as opposed to traveling in a truck and sitting in a warehouse for several days,” chef Cambra said. “It’s easy to let that show. You’re not needing to mask the flavors in heavy sauces. It’s about the freshness of the local products. That’s the key ingredient.”

Chef Cambra and the Roger Williams dining staff was taking part in the Eat Local Challenge, an annual event founded by Bon Appetit, parent company of the university’s dining services, which challenges all of its dining halls and restaurants in the country to prepare meals with only local ingredients. 

In fact, the company’s Farm to Fork program supports using locally-sourced ingredients year-round, which is an easier task in New England around this time of year, according to Bon Apetit General Manager James Gubata. As much as 35 percent of the food served at Roger Williams is from local farms, dairies and fisheries — especially during the fall harvest season in the northeast — exceeding the companies 20 percent goal. With an annual $5 million food budget at Roger Williams, “we’re really supporting the local food market here,” Mr. Gubata said.

That’s a windfall local farmers and fishers desperately need.

Farmers in the northeast face increasingly difficult conditions as they have to compete with huge corporate farms in the west and mid-west that tend to swallow their smaller counterparts. In the dairy industry, for example, the Federal Milk Order places a minimum price of just over $15 to the farmer for a hundred liquid pounds of milk. The problem is for a small dairy farmer, 100 liquid pounds of milk costs about $20 to produce, a loss small farms simply can’t absorb like the the conglomerates can, according to Winthrop Reed, of Rhody Fresh, a co-op of six dairy farmers in Rhode Island and Connecticut.

“The big farms in California with thousands of cows couldn’t care less, but it chokes out the smaller farms like ours in the Northeast,” Mr. Reed said. “The federal government never takes into consideration the small farmers.”

Rhody Fresh does, however. The business co-op buys the milk from local farmers and sells it under its name for 25 to 50 cents more per gallon than large companies like Hood or Garelick Farms. The profits are shared among the local farmers to keep them milking.

“We’re trying to keep the local farmers farming,” he said.

Blackbird Farm in Smithfield is another small entity depending on consumers to buy local — which may cost more than store brands, but also brings a higher quality of meat and freshness than can’t be beat in the supermarket, according to farm owner AnnMarie Bouthillette, who supplies beef and pork to Roger Williams and local restaurants around Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

“What local has been able to do is let us survive,” said Ms. Bouthillette, who spent Tuesday talking to Roger Williams students about the need to buy local, the kind of public relations she said is critical to small farmers. “To produce top quality, the animals need to be bred, fed and nurtured properly. It’s always the farmer who knows what they’re doing to create quality. People can see they can go down the street and get a steak right there. It’ll be a little more at a farmer’s market, but they’re going to get the best.”

Other local companies sampling their products at Roger Williams Tuesday and extolling the benefits of locally sourced food include Foley Fish, Aquidneck Honey, Horse Listener’s Orchard and DaSilva Farm, which provides eggs and meat to Bon Apetit, as well as the Bristol Sunset Cafe and the Mount Hope Farmer’s Market.

Establishing those kinds of partnerships among farmers and chefs is important to promote the buy-local goal, chef Cambra said, and it is mutually beneficial.

“It’s a way for chefs to have access to local ingredients. We’re very interested in that freshness,” he said. “And we’re a great outlet for local farmers. If they have excess ground beef one week, we can handle that with the number of students here. It’s a great way for us to help with supply and demand.”

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.