Relish Rhody: Rhode Island’s Innovative Comprehensive Food Strategy

December 14, 2017|12:38 p.m.| ASTHO Staff

Nicole Alexander-Scott, MDA community’s food scene is a central part of what makes it an attractive place to live, visit, and raise a family or business. In an effort to grow Rhode Island’s economy and support healthy families and communities, Rhode Island developed a comprehensive food strategy known as Relish Rhody. With the support of many partners, Relish Rhody envisions a sustainable, equitable food system that builds on Rhode Island’s traditions, strengths, and history while encouraging innovation and supporting the local food economy in a way that benefits all Rhode Islanders.

With this in mind, ASTHO spoke with Nicole Alexander-Scott, MD, director of the Rhode Island Department of Health, about food-system planning and innovation, the program’s success, and her advice for other public health leaders looking to establish similar food strategies.

As chief health strategist for Rhode Island, what health outcomes do you hope to achieve with the Relish Rhody program?

The principal health outcomes I envision are the rates of diet-related health conditions all throughout Rhode Island, especially in those areas and communities where socioeconomic and environmental factors—such as poverty and the lack of access to healthy food—have traditionally been drivers of diet-related health issues. Examples of these health conditions include obesity, diabetes, cancer, and dental issues. Our work to address these conditions is part of our larger vision to create an equitable, sustainable food system that ensures access to high-quality, local food for everyone in Rhode Island.

How has the Relish Rhody program used partnerships and collaborations with other governmental agencies to make it so successful?

The success of Relish Rhody is built upon collaboration. Our core themes of health and access, economic development, and environmental sustainability can only be addressed by agencies throughout the state coming together around a shared vision. One venue in Rhode Island for this collaboration has been the Inter-Agency Food and Nutrition Policy Advisory Council, which I co-chair. Seven different state agencies are represented on this panel. Another key component of our success with collaboration has been the state’s (and nation’s) first director of food strategy, Sue AnderBois. She has done incredible work coordinating stakeholders in Rhode Island around a five-year plan for Rhode Island’s food system.

Seeing as health equity is such an important focus for the Rhode Island Department of Health, how does the Relish Rhody program help address this important issue?

Health equity is at the heart of everything we do at the Rhode Island Department of Health, and it is absolutely at the heart of Relish Rhody. One of Relish Rhody’s main objectives is to alleviate food insecurity and hunger in Rhode Island, and one of the principal strategies within this objective is to make produce and other healthy foods more affordable and accessible. To this end, we are working with Farm Fresh Rhode Island, an organization dedicated to building healthier communities and a strong local food system, to ensure access to farmer’s markets and pop-up markets in Rhode Island. (Farm Fresh Rhode Island offers $2 in bonus bucks for every $5 SNAP spent on fresh produce.) We have also given Farm Fresh Rhode Island a permanent retail space, called Harvest Kitchen, to sell affordable, fresh produce and healthy, SNAP-eligible grab-and-go items. Another important initiative in Rhode Island has been the development of a Statewide Hunger Task Force, comprised of partners from a variety of sectors, including government, academia, and hospitality, with the goal of reducing food insecurity.

What advice do you have for state health officials and other public health leaders looking to establish similar comprehensive food strategies in their states or territories?

One key for other public health leaders looking to take a similar, comprehensive approach is to ensure that they work to get the engagement and investment of their state-level leaders. In Rhode Island, we are fortunate that this issue is an absolute priority for Gov. Gina Raimondo. Without her support, we would have had a much tougher row to hoe. It would also be beneficial for other states to try to get dedicated staff for food policy work. Having a director of food strategy in Rhode Island has played a critical role in our ability to coordinate among state leaders, community members, business leaders, and funders. Finally, states should look at their existing networks and initiatives to discern where there are opportunities for collaboration and synergy. For example, in Rhode Island, our food strategy work is aided and advanced greatly by Rhode Island’s Health Equity Zone initiative, which is comprised of ten local collaboratives throughout the state where we are providing seed money to support people and groups who are building stronger, healthier communities by addressing the socioeconomic and environmental determinants of health. These determinants include access to transportation, parks and open spaces, economic opportunity, fresh, healthy food, as well as clean, safe, and affordable housing.