On the farm

Market Mobile supplies the demand for local food
By MARION DAVIS  |  July 15, 2009

The menus at Chez Pascal in Providence often feature local meats, fish, and produce, but on Mondays, owner-chef Matt Gennuso goes all out. A recent menu featured burgers from Aquidneck Farms with thimble-size cheeses from Shy Brothers Farm; greens from Arcadian Fields, Ledge Ends and Farmacy Herbs; clams from Matunuck Oyster Farm; ricotta from Narragansett Creamery.

The locavore's feasts are inspired by visits to the farmers' market, which conveniently sets up right across the street on Saturday mornings, at Lippitt Park. But since late spring, Gennuso and other chefs have been able to shop local without even leaving the restaurant.

It's called Market Mobile, and like the markets, it's organized by Farm Fresh Rhode Island, the five-year-old nonprofit that has made it its mission to connect consumers with local farmers – and in the process, help keep farming viable in the state.

Every weekend, Farm Fresh asks local producers to list online what they have for sale, and on Mondays, it sends out an e-mail to chefs, grocers and schools highlighting "what's fresh." They, in turn, log onto the site to see the full farm-by-farm offerings and place their orders.

This week, for example, Wishing Stone Farm was promoting its super-fresh fava beans, $2.50 per pound. Both Aquidneck and Blackbird Farm offered beef; several farms had salad greens, string beanst and other veggies; there was dairy from Narragansett and Rhody Fresh; and there were more exotic items, such as kelp and kombu from She Sells Seaweed, in Maine.

To buy at wholesale prices and get delivery, chefs would normally have to buy in large quantities. But here, they just have to buy $100 total, says Jen Huntley-Corbin, coordinator of the program. It's not hard to reach that threshold: 10 pounds of brisket from Aquidneck, a pound of rosemary from Allen Farms, 10 pounds of potatoes from Schartner Farms, a case of string beans from Four Town Farm, a case of soda from Yacht Club Bottling Works.

Farmers get the orders on Tuesdays and have to deliver them to the Farm Fresh hub in East Providence by Thursday. They're paid immediately, minus a 10-percent fee that they're supposed to build into their prices. For customers in Providence — and starting this month, in Newport and the East Bay area — a truck delivers the goods. The rest pick up their orders.

Huntley-Corbin started the program in January after talking one-on-one with chefs and asking them what they were buying locally and from whom, and whether they'd buy more if it was easier. In its first six months, not including almost any of the harvest season, Market Mobile did about $38,000 in sales. It's growing rapidly, she says, especially since Newport Harbor Corp.'s restaurants joined the program recently.

"Most, if not all, would love to buy local," she says. "They definitely have the demand. Their customers are asking for it more and more, and the chefs are becoming very savvy."

The program, still a pilot and financed in part by the RI Division of Agriculture, is modeled on a successful farm-to-chef program in upstate New York, Huntley-Corbin says. It's "definitely still a work in progress," she says, but it's catching on, with regular customers including Chez Pascal, of course, plus Rhode Island School of Design, Blue State Coffee, the Liberty Elm, even a Foxboro eatery, Tastings Wine Bar & Bistro.

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