Dynamic Rhode Island Food Hub Connects Farmers and Eaters

Tera chats with Jesse Rye of Farm Fresh Rhode Island, an innovative nonprofit with multiple programs and a new 60,000-square-foot facility creating ample opportunities for farmers and food producers.

In Edible-Alpha® podcast #97, Tera interviews Jesse Rye, co-executive director of Farm Fresh Rhode Island, a nationally acclaimed nonprofit food hub that connects local farmers and eaters and helps strengthen New England’s food infrastructure. Launched as a Brown University student project in 2004, the organization has grown tremendously and recently built a 60,000-square-foot permanent home in Providence.

With a $4.2 million annual budget, Farm Fresh Rhode Island runs several successful programs. There’s Mobile Market, which aggregates and distributes food from over 115 local farmers and producers, and Harvest Kitchen, which produces value-added products from local produce while providing job training for at-risk youth. Farm Fresh also operates 10 farmers markets and provides the infrastructure for 25 more. Additionally, the organization has a farm-to-school and community education program, and it facilitates Bonus Bucks, a one-to-one match for people using SNAP.

Of course, Farm Fresh Rhode Island didn’t start out so ambitiously. It began by developing a food guide to link local farmers with locavore consumers and businesses. Then over time, Jesse says, “we’ve had strong organizational growth, driven through technological innovation, sound business and organizational practices, and an extremely dedicated staff and team of volunteers.”

Jesse joined Farm Fresh as managing director in 2012, amidst a rapid growth phase. He found his niche implementing support structures around growth, including financial systems, collections management and human resources—”all the things a young food hub or organization needs to think about.”

Around 2015, the organization, then renting office, market and warehouse space in Pawtucket, began discussing finding a forever home. Over the next few years, they refined their vision, pitched to potential funders and built momentum around the project.

“We were out there selling people the idea of a hub where Farm Fresh could grow as an organization and keep doing our mission-driven work, but also as a place where density of other business focused on farming and food could come together,” Jesse says. “It’s very much a cluster of economic activity that could bolster the regional food system but also have a really big impact on those businesses.”

Ultimately, Farm Fresh secured government funding, plus significant philanthropic support—a mix that Jesse says has been crucial. In 2017, the group purchased a 3-acre property in Providence, began building an environmentally conscious, purpose-designed facility, and started courting other food and farm businesses to rent spaces.

COVID-19 struck just as construction was complete—a lucky break because it let Farm Fresh move its summer farmers market inside. But with institutional customers dropping out rapidly, its other programs were impacted overnight. Within a week, Farm Fresh opened its wholesale ordering platform to home delivery. Orders jumped tenfold; one day they delivered $90,000 in food. The food hub also partook in the USDA Farmers to Families Food Box Program, which segued into hunger relief work that continues today.

As the pandemic has settled down, Farm Fresh has been able to move some tenants into the building and push forward with many initiatives. We’re excited to see how this dynamic organization continues to scale and evolve. This podcast is packed with inspiration, so definitely tune in!