Envisioning Rhode Island as the “Silicon Valley of Food” may sound audacious. Proposing legislation that would designate calamari as the state’s official appetizer has already drawn significant criticism from those who say it’s a distraction from much more pressing business.
Upon closer observation, however, it seems such thinking may be just what we need.
U.S. Rep. Jim Langevin’s recent tour of local food-related businesses illustrated just how plentiful and exciting the Ocean State’s culinary resources are. The congressman began his journey earlier this month at Burrillville’s Daniele Inc. The co-owner of the company, Davide Dukcevich, accompanied Langevin to this year’s State of the Union address after the two met and spoke about the immense potential of the Ocean State’s food economy.
Among the local stops on the tour were Warwick Ice Cream, Baffoni’s Poultry Farm and Verde Vineyards in Johnston and the Cranston Area Career & Technical Center’s (CACTC) culinary program. The stories told along the way were of innovation, of a new focus on locally produced food and the ways in which those in the industry are working together.
At Baffoni’s, which has been in business since 1935 and is set to become the state’s first U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified poultry slaughterhouse, the cooperative spirit was on full display. With its new designation, the farm will prepare and package birds for other farmers, adding a new dimension to a business that already caters to restaurants, farmers markets and families.
“It’s our intention to help the other small farmers,” said Paul Baffoni. “The buy-local scene is all about that.”
At Warwick Ice Cream, Langevin heard of the company’s new partnership with Sam’s Club, which it is hoped will lead to local products being sold throughout the country. And at CACTC, the congressman saw how the chefs and food industry professionals of the future are preparing for their careers.
“The skills you’re gaining will serve you well when you graduate,” he said, citing his work on behalf of funding for career and technical education. “They are real-world skills, skills you need in society.”
Rhode Island’s small size has its downsides, but geography can be a major asset in terms of the food industry. The proximity of farms to population centers – and one another – allows for products to be kept natural and fresh while doing business. The natural landscape, from rocky coasts to rising hills, affords a range of physical diversity found in few other places of such compact size.
Yet being small means extra effort is needed to stand out in the national, and global, marketplace. The calamari bill, reintroduced this year by Warwick state Rep. Joseph McNamara and South Kingstown state Sen. V. Susan Sosnowski, is designed to help promote a popular local product in a way the state has already done with coffee milk, the quahog and the greening apple.
While opponents have attacked the bill as moving the focus of officials away from job creation, McNamara and Sosnoswki say the proposal will shine positive light on the state’s fishing industry.
It may seem like a tiny, perhaps even silly, step. It will not likely result in the kind of tangible returns our state so badly needs in terms of economic growth or new jobs. But it’s certainly drawn headlines and garnered attention, which is the ultimate goal of any effective marketing strategy. And it certainly fits in as a piece of a broader puzzle.
Langevin, likewise, cannot tout that his tour of local businesses has set the foundation for the “Silicon Valley of Food” that Dukcevich imagines. It has, however, drawn new attention to the resources in place and the connections that can be made.
Food is a vital part of Rhode Island’s identity, and would appear primed to serve as a cornerstone of our economic future. We applaud those who are embracing that vision and are daring to think outside the box.