Wednesday, March 12, 2014
Living in Maine means that we are at the end of the road -- literally -- if we are in business and rely on out-of-state suppliers.
Or, if you are an environmentalist, it means we are at the end of the tail pipe of Midwestern and Southwestern coal-fired plants that ruin our air through parts of the summer, when warm air blows in from the south and west.
As I learned this week, however, we are a leader one key area: the production of healthy food and providing that food to low-income Mainers who need it. I attended a "convening" of the Wholesome Wave Foundation in Washington, D.C., along with more than 100 partners from 23 states and the District of Columbia.
Maine was well-represented, with program managers from Maine Farmland Trust, Belfast; Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, Unity; Cultivating Community, Portland, and Coastal Enterprises Inc., Wiscasset. Other Maine grantees who did not attend were the Skowhegan Farmers' Market and the Downeast Business Alliance.
I represented MOFGA, since Long Meadow Farm has received grants for two years helping us to provide deep discounts on our share prices for people receiving food stamps.
Wholesome Wave is a new foundation out of Bridgeport, Conn., with a mission to "empower historically excluded urban and rural communities by increasing access to and affordability of fresh, locally grown food, resulting in significant local economic impact."
Its primary strategy is simple: give money to farmers' markets and CSA (farm share) farms so they can provide low-cost food to low-income families. Typically, families that use food stamps can get healthy food at a 50 percent discount. Wholesome Wave is a small foundation with a $3.1 million budget, of which $1.3 million is distributed to grantees, a very high ratio.
In 2011, nearly 40,000 families benefited from Wholesome Wave's "Double Value Coupon Program," nearly double the year before. The impact on their local communities is evident: Every food-stamp dollar spent locally generates $1.73 in local economic benefit.
The foundation focuses on federal policies that benefit sustainable, local agriculture throughout the nation. This year, that means the Farm Bill, which is set for a five-year renewal, and which provided $78 billion in food stamp aid in 2011.
The 2012 bill is under consideration in the House and Senate, with highly contentious debate about the escalating cost of food stamps and the virtual elimination of commodity crop subsidies (corn, soy, wheat, sugar, rice, peanuts) in favor of crop insurance assistance..
Maine Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, who spoke at the conference Wednesday morning, has submitted her own addition to the farm bill debate: The Local Farms, Food and Jobs Act. The bill would make it easier for small farmers to build infrastructure, such as slaughterhouses; help school and hospitals acquire local food, and make it easier for food stamp recipients to buy food at farmers' markets.
"Billions are going to things that we don't need to subsidize, like corn, soy, sugar and rice. Our goal is to divert some of those funds to farmers' markets, food stamps and school lunch programs," said Pingree, who is an organic farmer from North Haven. "These goals can move forward. The only thing is our way is the Congress of the United States. The marketplace is ready for these changes."
Debate on the bill was delayed Wednesday by the rice crop lobby, she said. "Since when did rice get a vote in this country?" she asked.
The growth of the local food industry has the industrial farm lobby worried, she said. "The big interests are starting to say, whoa, this local food thing is getting too big, let's nip it in the bud."
While her bill has some traction, with 75 cosponsors in the House, Pingree would not go out on a limb to say that any farm bill is a sure thing to pass before national elections in November, or even in the lame duck days at the end of the year.
It was great to see a Maine congresswoman on the same page with the 140-plus people in the room who devote their lives to local food, local economies, and the provision of healthy food for those who need it most.
Our state motto "Dirigo" applies well in this arena.
Denis Thoet owns and manages Long Meadow Farm in West Gardiner. www.longmeadowfarmmaine.com.