2017-10-05 / Around Town

Local Food Challenge Makes ‘Huge Impact’

By Brooke Constance White


Parys Fortini, Executive Chef and Heather Freeman, sous-chef serve a dish of grilled chicken glazed with a local honey and accompanied by veggie slaw drizzled in a cumin, orange, ginger vinaigrette. (Photo by Meri Keller) Parys Fortini, Executive Chef and Heather Freeman, sous-chef serve a dish of grilled chicken glazed with a local honey and accompanied by veggie slaw drizzled in a cumin, orange, ginger vinaigrette. (Photo by Meri Keller) By many accounts, this year’s Aquidneck Island Food Challenge was a fun way for participants to challenge themselves by eating local food. By Bevan Linsley’s account, the weeklong event was a smashing success for the community and for her nonprofit organization, Aquidneck Community Table (ACT), which organized the challenge.

“We more than doubled our participants from last year,” said Linsley, ACT’s executive director. “It was great to hear that so many of those who registered want to support local farms as that has a huge impact on the community and local economy.”

More than 200 area residents registered and purchased heaps of locally grown food during the second annual food challenge, held Sept. 23-29. Some went all in and only ate and cooked with Aquidneck Island ingredients, while others incorporated a few local products into each of their meals. No matter how they participated, Linsley said each person made a difference in the local economy by supporting the island’s farmers and food artisans.


Locally grown fruits and vegetables were featured during the challenge. Pennfield School and St. Michael's Country Day School served local apples each day. (Photo by Meri Keller) Locally grown fruits and vegetables were featured during the challenge. Pennfield School and St. Michael's Country Day School served local apples each day. (Photo by Meri Keller) “Our participants were really inspired to look at their meals differently and be more creative,” she said, adding that the event was a boon to the economy, due in part to some special participants.

Although changes to a food system take place on various scales, large institutions can have substantial effects on a local economy when they commit to buying food more sustainably, Linsley said. So when she heard that Chef Parys Fortini, who works for Salve Regina University’s food service company Sodexo, had designed a special menu incorporating locally sourced ingredients, she was thrilled.

“A big institution such as a university has a lot of buying power, so having someone like Salve Regina say they want to do things differently can be a driver of economic change in a community,” she said. “It can also motivate farmers to grow more because there’s now a much bigger demand than before.”

Local items on the menu included a corn, cherry tomato and arugula salad sourced from Pezza Farms in Cranston, an heirloom grape caprese salad with local cilingini from Schartner’s Farm in Exeter and Narragansett Creamery in Providence, and fresh burgers with local mushrooms and hand-cut fries from Quonset View Farms in Portsmouth in collaboration with the RI Mushroom Co. in Kingston.

Becky Webb, operations manager of dining facilities for Sodexo at Salve Regina, said the school as a whole is trying to eat fresher and more sustainably.

“Local food has been a big initiative for the students,” said Webb, adding that Sodexo last year changed its produce supplier to Roch’s in West Greenwich since it carries more local produce. “We have a garden and are hoping to get a greenhouse, too.”

Linsley said that although supporting local suppliers often takes more time and money, changes like this can make a big difference for farmers and food artisans.

“Salve is really a leader here because of these efforts,” she said. “We’re happy to go there, enjoy the local menu, toast to the chef and say thank you for supporting our efforts.”

While ACT wasn’t able to make it to every island school for a meal, Linsley said she and the board were thrilled to learn that Newport, Middletown and Portsmouth Public Schools, as well as Chartwells, their food service provider, featured locally sourced vegetables each day during the challenge week. Pennfield School and St. Michael’s Country Day School served local apples every day of the challenge.

At the end of the week, participants and organizers gathered at the Seamen’s Church Institute for a “finish line” party to celebrate their efforts to support the local food economy. Attendees made and brought locally sourced dishes such as a frittata, zucchini boats and shepherd's pie to share with others. Stoneacre Brasserie provided a black sea bass entree.

Nikki Vasquez, the challenge coordinator working alongside ACT, said that her husband and children incorporated several local ingredients into their meals, but that she took the challenge further and gave up coffee for the week. It was an educational experience, she said, but next year, she hopes to prepare a bit more and grow more of her own herbs and vegetables.

“Someone around here should start making sunflower seed oil, because that’s one of those staples that’s missing from the local market,” she said. “Just like Simmon’s Farm produced butter last year, I think we will just keep on adding more local ingredients every year.”

Katie Dyer and Nord Lang, two challenge participants, said they already eat a locally sourced diet for the most part, but were still happy to take part in the challenge and enjoy the community support and resources provided. They knew it was doable to take the “all in” route but decided against it when they realized they’d have to cook everything in butter.

“Our biggest sin for the week was olive oil,” Lang said. “We decided we didn’t want to go without it so that was the transgression of the week for us.”

In all, Linsley said that the food challenge week was an amazing experience and brought people together. Between the local farmers and food artisans, she said, restaurants offering locally sourced meals, and the sponsors who supported the challenge and helped provide resources to participants, it was truly a community effort.

“The challenge made a big impact this year,” Linsley said. “And I think that that impact will continue to grow in the coming years because I believe there’s been a big shift in thinking about sustainable food. And that’s incredibly exciting.”

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