EPA program looks to target city’s food sector

EPA program looks to target city’s food sector

From left, Dennis Deziel, EPA New England regional administrator, Ken Ayer, chief of agriculture for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, Tara Cimini, food access lead for the Woonsocket Health Equity Zone, John Chan, owner of Chan’s restaurant, Meghan Rego, director of resource development and communications for NeighborWorks Blackstone River Valley, and Scott Gibbs, director of planning for Woonsocket tour Chan’s restaurant during a recent tour of downtown sites as part of the Local Foods/Local Places program.

WOONSOCKET – Several local organizations and the Environmental Protection Agency are hoping to boost the city’s food economy with a program aimed at bringing new life to underutilized properties.

Earlier this year, NeighborWorks Blackstone River Valley along with the Downtown Woonsocket Collaborative, the city’s Department of Planning and Development and the Woonsocket Health Equity Zone applied for technical assistance as part of the Local Foods/Local Places program. The program, sponsored by the EPA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, offers resources for communities trying to develop local food opportunities for their residents.

Meghan Rego, director of resource development and communications at NeighborWorks, said the group hopes to target food opportunities in vacant spaces, particularly in the downtown areas of the city.

“One of our biggest goals is to look at opportunity space in the city. I’m looking at vacant spaces on Main Street and as we look to develop the mill spaces at 68 South Main and 15 Island Place,” she said, referring to the buildings owned by NeighborWorks behind Market Square.

Though the group doesn’t have an action plan yet – that’s what the technical assistance will help them to develop – their goal, she said, is to connect the community with resources to help get food-focused ideas moving in the city.

“I’ve sat on enough committees to know that residents want better access to fresh food downtown. Be that a co-op or a grocery store or a farmers’ market, I don’t know, I want to hear more,” she said.

Woonsocket was one of 16 communities nationwide selected to participate in the program, which has helped spur food-centered projects in municipalities across the country. According to Dennis Deziel, New England regional administrator for the EPA, the program will build on recent investments in brownfields revitalization to help clean up the city’s former mill sites.

“The Local Foods/Local Places project builds on a lot of investment that has gone into the city on the remediation front,” he told The Breeze.

Last Thursday, Oct. 8, Deziel and other local and state officials participated in a walking tour of downtown sites that could play into the city’s food revitalization. These included Market Square, Chan’s restaurant, the Beacon Charter High School for the Arts culinary program and a property under development at 43 Railroad St. Deziel said downtown’s layout and recent commercial investment makes it an ideal location for a growing food hub.

“Woonsocket has so much potential. It’s the perfect sort of situation and community support of the food hub of the next generation,” he said.

For now, the assistance will take the form of a Local Foods/Local Places workshop scheduled for Oct. 27–29. Though normally held in person, this workshop will take place online and include sessions geared toward tackling issues of food access and growing the food economy in the city. The goal, said Rego, is to come up with an action plan that will translate to positive steps the community can take to grow its food economy in the coming months.

“I am really hopeful and optimistic, because they have done this across the country,” she said.

Local residents and business owners interested in participating in the workshop can find a registration link on the NeighborWorks website and Facebook page.