The growth of local farms has been one of the most positive developments in Maine over the last decade or so. But despite this resurgence, and the economy that has sprouted up along with it, only a very small percentage of the food consumed in Maine is produced or grown here.
To fix that — and maximize the potential of the many small agriculture-based businesses — the market for local products has to grow beyond farmers markets and small grocers.
Fortunately, Maine already has a huge, built-in market: State institutions — local schools, college and universities, and correctional facilities — spend millions of dollars of taxpayer money on food every year. Unfortunately, far too little of that food comes from Maine producers.
To help change that, lawmakers should embrace the opportunity presented by “food hubs,” regional groups that aggregate products from a number of small farms, affording them the advantages of larger operations.
Food hubs are the subject of L.D. 1431, from Sen. Christopher Johnson, D-Somerville. The bill would fund studies about the feasibility of forming the food hubs in Maine, then help grassroots efforts to establish the groups and connect them with local schools looking for healthy, Maine-grown food.
Budget constraints in Augusta likely will prevent the full scope of the bill from being realized this year. There is room for the initial studies, however, and it is important that Maine starts down this road as soon as possible, to take advantage of the burgeoning agricultural economy here.
Schools that now want to buy fresh, local meat and produce typically are forced to seek out a variety of sellers. Supply and price can be unpredictable.
Food hubs would help remove these barriers. Combining products from multiple farms would open the way for large-scale contracts, allowing for reliable planning and competitive pricing. The groups also could increase storage and light processing capacity, allowing produce to be used in different ways throughout the year, not just in season.
Despite the issues now in play, some schools are showing just what could be done if Maine’s full farming potential is reached.
Portland schools in 2013 spent 14 percent of their $1.4 million food budget locally, according to Ron Adams, food services director. That is twice the amount as 2012, and Adams expects to double it again in 2014. Unity schools, Adams said in testimony before the agriculture committee, spend 40 percent of their food budget in Maine.
If other schools could do the same, that would mean millions of dollars for Maine farms, as well as better food for students. Duplicating that success across the state, however, requires that schools make a commitment to local foods, by acquiring the capacity to store, prepare and serve them.
All that effort, however, is for naught if the schools don’t have easy and economical access to the local meat and produce. Food hubs are a promising way to create that access, but first the farming community must find out where they will work, what products are available, and what areas of production need expansion.
That’s where the state can pitch in, for the health of both Maine students and our small local farms.
(Editor’s note: A previous version of this editorial incorrectly stated the amount of the Portland schools food budget.)