Food Hubs Can Help Grow a More Resilient Food System in Maine

Ben Tettlebaum

Locally grown food could soon get a boost in Maine.  Photo Credit: *w* via Compfight cc

Locally grown food could soon get a boost in Maine.
Photo Credit: *w* via Compfight cc

The average Maine meal travels 1,900 miles from field to fork. With that distance come numerous costs. All those food miles increase fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Maine farmland no longer in production is often lost to urban and suburban development, which also means the loss of the conservation practices of many of these farmers. Eating Maine-grown food generates greater economic value for every dollar spent. By importing food from away, valuable food dollars leak out of the state instead of being reinvested in the local economy.

Fortunately, Maine has the ability to grow and harvest much of the food it needs. In the current session of the Maine legislature, a bill (LD 1431) entitled “An Act To Support School Nutrition and Expand the Local Foods Economy” would lay an important foundation for getting Maine to produce and consume more of its own food. The Maine Environmental Priorities Coalition, of which CLF is a member, chose this bill as one of its top legislative priorities. It provides much-needed capital to food hubs that will grow the local food economy — creating jobs for farmers, producers, and food distributors — improve the quality and nutritional value of school food for Maine’s children, and foster a more resilient food system.

Growing a Robust Local Food System
So what are food hubs? They’re a valuable tool for supporting smaller farms and expanding local-food production and availability. These businesses or organizations collect, distribute, and market food products from mostly local and regional producers to strengthen their ability to satisfy wholesale, retail, and institutional demand. Importantly, food hubs value and work closely with producers to ensure they receive a premium price for their products. Food hubs maintain a triple bottom line, focusing on economic, social, and environmental goals.

Based on the “Report and Recommendations of the Maine Farm to School Work Group,” LD 1431 is carefully drafted to overcome barriers to building a more robust local food system. First, the bill addresses the logistical challenges of matching many smaller-scale producers to institutional and other large food markets. Second, it tackles the practical difficulties farmers face in handling and storing larger quantities of food, particularly year round. Finally, it better prepares public schools — an important potential consumer of local foods — to buy, prepare, and serve Maine-grown and -harvested foods.

LD 1431 achieves these goals through incentives, not mandates. In Phase 1, the bill funds market-feasibility studies to identify the availability of fresh foods and seafood grown (or, in the case of seafood, harvested) in Maine, and the institutional demand for this food. With existing market information limited, these studies will play a crucial role in determining the viability of food hubs around the state.

Funding Food Hubs and Expanding Access
In Phase 2 — the core of the bill — individuals submit applications for grants or low-interest loans to start food hubs. The feasibility studies under Phase 1 (or an applicant’s demonstration of comparable market knowledge) are necessary to receive funding. Applicants must also meet several criteria that show they can succeed. In this way, the bill ensures wise investment of public dollars in food hubs that have strong business plans and are most likely to expand the local food system.

The bill recognizes that public schools in particular face challenges with purchasing and preparing fresh, local produce. To address these hurdles, LD 1431 funds six regional training programs for school food-service workers. The programs will teach how to buy and prepare local foods, and encourage collaboration and a sense of community statewide among food-service personnel. Currently, the state matches $1 for every $3 a school district spends on local produce, up to a maximum of $1,000. The bill raises the annual reimbursement to $2,000 for school districts that send at least one food-service employee to a local-foods training.

Investing in Maine’s Food and Future
The bulk of funding for LD 1431 comes from a $6 million bond that would go to the voters if the legislature passes the bill. This is a sound long-term investment for Maine. Several studies show that dollars spent through food hubs boost local economies much more than dollars spent on imported food. In fact, every $100 spent on local food has the potential to generate an additional $63 in the local economy. LD 1431 would build a stronger food system and a stronger economy in Maine.

Maine’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee is currently debating the bill. While CLF works to get this bill to the full legislature for a vote, be sure to check back here to track our progress on this smart investment in Maine’s future.

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