Can a Portland Food Policy Council Help Lead New England’s Food System?

Ben Tettlebaum

Portland's first-ever forums on local food brought together mayoral and city council candidates to talk about food issues in the city.

Portland’s first-ever forums on local food brought together mayoral and city council candidates to talk about food issues in the city.

For the first time in Portland’s history candidates for mayor and city council gathered over the last two nights to discuss all things food. Why? Because food touches everyone. The food system is the path food travels from field to fork and back again into production. It is a cycle that encompasses critical social and environmental issues – from hunger to healthy soils. Over the last decade Portland has become a center for creative and innovative food businesses. So it was particularly timely when candidates who will run the largest city in the state came together to debate vital issues about Portland’s rapidly growing locally based food system. With Portland being an economic driver of new food businesses in Maine, and the state once having been the breadbasket of New England, the question lingering in the air was: Can Portland become a leader in our region’s food system?

Conservation Law Foundation partnered with the University of Maine School of Law to host the forums, along with a diverse group of food businesses and organizations from around the state. Beforehand, CLF circulated a food policy survey to the 11 candidates. The survey served as a springboard for candidates to discuss city government’s role in addressing a wide range of issues: from food insecurity to zoning ordinances; from food production to wild foraging; from underutilized fish species to composting. The audience was treated to true grassroots civic engagement.

The resounding need that rose to the top of the list is for the city to implement a robust Food Policy Council. A Food Policy Council would serve as an advisory body to the city on everything related to the food system. With three legs – government; the private sector; and the community – the Council would provide a venue where all voices are heard and welcomed around the table.

A report just released by Harvard University’s Maine Food Cluster Project underscores the need for just such government collaboration to grow New England’s food system. A quasi-governmental Food Policy Council would leverage Portland’s food economy to become the economic engine for Maine and beyond. By bringing all parts of the food system under one coordinated body, it would also bridge the gap between issues that are often addressed in isolation, such as hunger on the one hand and growing our farm, fish, and food-based businesses on the other.

Fortunately, this effort already has a solid foundation. In 2012, Mayor Michael Brennan, who running for re-election, helped launched the Mayor’s Initiative for a Healthy and Sustainable Food System. The Initiative has brought over $100,000 into Portland to address a variety of food-related issues, set a goal for Portland’s school system to source 50% of its food from local farms, and expanded the city’s community gardens, among many other achievements.

Now is time for the Initiative to evolve into a fully formed Portland Food Policy Council. CLF is facilitating this process by crafting the foundation and structural documents for the Council through an iterative process with stakeholders and the community.

Thanks to the last two nights, candidates have these crucial issues on their radar, including the need for a Food Policy Council that capitalizes on opportunities and addresses challenges in our food economy. By helping to create the Council, CLF is working to ensure that the city prioritizes key farm, fish, and food related issues well into the future and takes a lead role in growing New England’s food system.

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