February 16, 2011

GEORGE SMITH: Complex web of groups works to get Maine foods on Maine tables

George Smith

Racing down Interstate 95 toward Portland, running late for the annual meeting of the Eat Local Foods Coalition, I almost pulled into McDonald's in Freeport for a drive-through lunch.

Thankfully, given my destination, it occurred to me that this might be a mortal sin.

Instead, I breezed into Micucci's, Portland's wonderfully authentic Italian market, for a large yummy Sicilian Slice -- Micucci's version of pizza. I arrived at the Eat Local Foods meeting with a clear conscience.

ELF is an umbrella coalition of groups sharing common goals: to help Maine farmers grow and market their food, to get more Maine food into retail markets, and to educate and inform consumers about healthy eating and the value of supporting local producers. The group includes organizations doing all of these things with lobstermen and commercial fishermen.

It's all about Maine. As Craig Lupine, ELF's new chairman, put it so well, the goal is, "More Maine food on more Maine tables more often."

As I sat through a couple of hours of reports from each person at the meeting, some things seemed obvious.

There is a complex web of groups, from the grass roots to the state and federal levels, and a confusing array of projects, working to achieve these goals in Maine. They have their own lingo, and their abbreviations made my head spin.

I heard about HMPs, CSFs, CSAs, CEI, food security and the mapping of something called foodsheds. (Editor's note: The acronyms stand for Healthy Maine Partnerships, Community Supported Fisheries, Community Supported Agriculture and Coastal Enterprises Inc. A foodshed is defined as a geographic area within a certain distance of the source of the foodstuff.)

The names of dozens of projects, websites and grass-roots groups flashed by, including Slow Money Maine, Farm Viability Project, Healthy Maine Partnerships, Community Food Assessment Collaborative, Community Food Matters, Food Corps, By Land & By Sea, Lobsters on the Fly, Portland's Permaculture Group, and the Maine Hunger Coalition and Policy Group.

Who knew that Maine even had a food policy? We do.

I heard a few familiar names of sponsoring and participating organizations, including the Island Institute, Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, Maine Farmland Trust, Maine Council or Churches and Good Shepherd Food Bank.

And John Harker was there representing Maine's Department of Agriculture.

What I didn't hear was the name of a single statewide major agricultural group. No Maine Farm Bureau. No Maine Potato Board. No Maine Dairy Association. The state's major food producers are apparently not a part of this Eat Local Foods initiative. Of course, they play on a bigger stage and have plenty of clout, but it would be encouraging to see them reaching out to help the small guys.

And someone, somehow, needs to pull this complexity of projects into a coherent whole, so we can move forward efficiently and effectively to put more Maine food on our tables.

I learned about wonderful websites that can help you find markets close to your home to purchase whatever you seek. But no one is using them.

I heard about a fascinating project that doubles the value of federal food coupons at some farmer's markets. But customers still say they can buy cheaper food at Wal-Mart.

No one seemed to be working on my pet peeve -- the roadblocks Maine puts up that make it hard for small home-based food products businesses. But Russ Libby, my friend and neighbor and the longtime leader of MOFGA, said Maine is actually one of the easiest states for home producers. Many states prohibit it entirely.

And I learned about some exciting initiatives from a new grain mill in Skowhegan to the Good Shepherd's purchase of 350,000 pounds of produce from 15 Maine farms in 2010.

The most encouraging thing I heard at the meeting also came from Libby, who once told me that if each of us would spend just $10 of our weekly food budget on locally produced food, the economic impact would be staggering.

Well, we're doing it. Libby reported a recent poll found that half of Maine's families spending $10 or more per week purchasing local produce.

Libby also said that some major Maine supermarkets are doing a good job of working with local farmers, particularly Hannaford, which allows farmers to deliver directly to their closest supermarket.

Linda and I recently noticed many Maine products featured at Whole Foods in Portland, and Libby agreed this is another supermarket that works well with local producers, even allowing them to set up a farmer's market outside the store during the summer.

Volunteers do much of this work, with little or no money, but with demonstrated and significant accomplishments all over the state. You can help.

Eat local. Eat often.

George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon 04352, or georgesmith maine @gmail.com. YRead more of Smith's writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.

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